One Night on the Wharf

Read Paper Republic – Figures in a Landscape

Mention Han Dong to anyone in China over the age of fifty and they’ll remember him as a 1980s rebel poet and poetry magazine editor. But he is also known for his novellas. I knew Han Dong thought they were amongst his best work, and recently asked him why. He said: “I have always felt that the novella length suited me best. My stories start slowly and I like to build them up into a sort of ‘complex simplicity’. By that, I mean using simple language and elements to weave together into something more complex. If I can put it like this, my stories read very simply, but the more you read, the more complex they seem.” [personal communication, my translation]. I was prompted to translate One Night on the Wharf when Han Dong himself directed it as a film, with Jia Zhangke as producer. In fact, the novella is a far bleaker story. Pay attention to its dark undertones!

The meal, which began at three in the afternoon, was not really lunch, nor was it dinner, but they all ate with hearty appetites. Half an hour went by, they began to slow down, and, an hour later, they stopped eating altogether. They each lit a cigarette and, in between puffing out smoke, sipped their beer or used toothpicks to pick their teeth, spitting shreds of meat in random directions over the table and uncleared dishes. During the meal, someone reminded their old friend Bu “not to miss his train,” and was unanimously shouted down for being “unkind” and trying to get rid of Bu. Bu sat there, flushed to the tips of his ears. He was six feet tall, but had slid down in his seat until his head did not even reach the top of the chair-back. His face wreathed in smiles, he was saying something ridiculous, which set everyone off in shouts of laughter. (Actually, with the amount they had drunk, anything made them laugh.) Suddenly, Bu stopped smiling, got to his feet, and left. He left his bags behind, but this oversight was not terribly important as the other three were there to see him off. They were not surprised to see him get up. To ask him “Where are you going?” would have been superfluous. They knew he was heading for the railway station. So, the three of them retrieved Bu’s luggage from a corner of the room, two shopping bags and a rucksack, and, taking one each, hurried out of the door in pursuit. Bu walked fast, being a tall man with a long stride, and they had to trot to catch up. However, it would take more than two legs to get to the railway station. They needed not only to catch a taxi but also to take the ferry across the river. The train departed from the north side of the river. Bu had his ticket (a sleeper because he was going quite some distance), which a friend had got for him three days before, but the trouble was that the ferries only ran every half-hour and they could not cross straightaway. Bu had reckoned there was no point in getting to the wharf too early. They’d be better off staying in the restaurant, keeping the drinks circulating, instead of kicking their heels for half an hour! In one sense he was quite right, in that they were early for the next ferry. But they had come, not for the ferry ride, but to catch the train that was belching steam, all ready to charge off, at the station on the opposite side of the Yangtse River. As far as the train was concerned, they were not too early at all. As they waited in helpless anxiety to cross, they heard the series of long whistles that announced its imminent departure. Then, when they got on board, they discovered that the ferry was not heading toward the wharf opposite, but further upstream, toward Chongqing in fact. Bu swore furiously. The pilot was being ridiculous! The boat actually traveled parallel with the south bank for quite some time. (Afterwards, it dawned on them that if the boat had headed straight for the opposite bank, it would have missed the landing on the other side by a long way.) The boat reached mid-stream and appeared to stop moving. In fact, it was moving very fast, but there were no nearby points of reference, so it didn’t seem to be moving. They had all been anxious that Bu would miss his train, but with the illusion of stillness, they took their lead from Bu and stopped worrying. They began to admire the river’s scenery: the red sun had slowly sunk over the river and both banks faded from view, as if the world could be wiped away with one light stroke. On deck, crowds of people stood packed together amid jute sacks and bicycles, their faces a blur, only the whites of their eyes and lighted cigarette ends showing in the darkness.

As the boat approached the opposite bank, it appeared to pick up speed and Bu and his friends went into action. They pushed their way to the point at the side of the boat where it looked likely they would disembark and, as soon as the boat reached the quay, were pushed off it by the force of the crowd behind. Bu was in front, quicker than the others because he was empty-handed, while the others followed him, hurtling along in the darkness, their feet thudding beneath them. They could not see if they were on the deck or the gangplank, but it sounded like wooden planks beneath their feet. The planks were extremely springy, making them lurch awkwardly as they ran. The three friends straggled behind Bu, their position depending on how fit they were and how much they had eaten, but they called out each other’s names in order to keep in touch. Off the boat, down the gangplank, across the wharf and into a narrow street, and on toward the bright lights of North Bank Station. By this time, they had left the other disembarking passengers behind them and were alone in the street as they puffed and panted along. They had imagined a hustle and bustle but the street was curiously still. So was the train station when they arrived, although it had been noisy a few moments before. Under the yellowish lights, an old woman in grey-blue overalls swept leaves, tin cans, and bits of paper and plastic into a heap with the steady strokes of her broom. Bu stumbled to a halt in front of the heap. One by one, the other three caught up, as if they had made arrangements to rendezvous at the pile of rubbish. The old woman said with an air of authority: “The train’s left.”

What a rush, and all for nothing, Bu thought regretfully. Of course, if he had made the train, it would have been a different matter. But as it was, their wild dash had exhausted them mentally and physically. He had no regrets about the afternoon’s meal, though. Why miss an opportunity to get together with his friends, just to catch a train, right? How boring. He even regretted the fact that they had not gone on eating, since he was clearly destined to miss his train.

He would not be able to leave from the North Bank Station this evening, since there was only the one train. They decided to go back to the south bank so he could get a train from the new station. That was the main city station, so there were plenty of trains. Bu was sure he would get one. They began to retrace their steps, this time ambling along at a more relaxed pace, paying close attention to the street they had previously ignored. The crowds were out for a stroll after their evening meal now. Perhaps they had been there before, but the friends had not seen them in their hurry. The nearer they got to the wharf, the livelier it got. Neon-lit dancehalls and brothel- saunas catered for all needs; the small, track-side town thrived from the railway, and its proximity to the wharf gave it further buzz of excitement. Bu was a man of the world, but even he was full of curiosity. This very ordinary small town seemed particularly marvelous because unexpected—after all, it had never been part of their itinerary.

Even though they walked very slowly, they still arrived at the pier too early. After six o’clock the ferries were hourly. The four friends just missed the one they had taken over from the south bank; it had already set off on its return journey, having disembarked all its passengers. As a result, they had nearly an hour to wait in the ferry terminal waiting room. They could have used the time to have a meal, because the street between the ferry pier and the train station was crammed with stalls selling snacks, lit by hurricane lamps or plug-in emergency lights, where stall-holders fried dark masses of food which crackled and popped in the pans. But they had only finished an enormous meal around five in the afternoon and had no desire to start eating again. Just the sight of food put them off. They decided to find a quiet corner to sit down. That mad dash to the station had not done their digestion any good at all. So they chose a bench in the waiting room, and one kept an eye on the luggage, while the others went to buy their tickets and some bottles of fizz.

Wang Zhi bought the bottles of fizz because he was horribly thirsty and immediately drank his down. Empty bottle in hand, he went over to where Ma Ning and Fei Jun were sitting on the bench, staring blankly in front of them as they drank, and inattentively dropped his bottle between them. He did not throw it or smash it, just let it go. The bottle hit the concrete floor and shattered. Alerted by the noise, Ma and Fei checked to see if their trouser legs were splashed, then laughed and swore at Wang for being an idiot and having no respect for other people. They shuffled along, a little way from the glass fragments, but left Bu’s three bags where they were. They moved from the left of the bags to the right. Now the bags, which had been on their right, were positioned on their left.

The waiting room was large and high-ceilinged, rather like a warehouse. Indeed, it may have been converted from an old warehouse. Lamps hung down from the highest point, shedding a wan light over the waiting room. There were hardly any other passengers waiting, since one ferry had just departed and the evening was not a busy time. The locals sometimes dropped in when they had nothing better to do, so now a few old people and children without boat tickets came in. The guard at the door could tell quite well who was waiting for the boat and who had come in just to pass the time of day. A toddler pissed on the floor, and no one tried to stop her. In one corner of the waiting room there was a kiosk—two glass display cabinets, arranged in an L shape, fitted inside with fluorescent tubes. These not only illuminated the goods for sale but also added considerably to the brightness of that corner of the waiting room. A pretty young salesgirl stood at the counter and a bunch of children crowded around it, peering through the glass. Bu quietly attached himself to them, making out he was an oversize child himself. He had his head bent, and the strip-lighting turned his face a ghastly white. Wang Zhi had bought four bottles of fizz and gave one to bent-headed Bu before going back to the bench. Actually, he would have liked to hang around too, but he had none of Bu’s self-assurance. Both of them had realized that the salesgirl was very pretty but Wang Zhi could only treat her as a salesgirl by buying four bottles of fizz from her—he did not know what else to do. Then he took his purchases back and sat with Ma Ning and Fei Jun. Bu, however, treated the sales assistant as a pretty girl from the get-go, as if she was standing behind the counter just so that she could be looked at. Of course, he had to look at the facecloths, maps, rolls of film, folding fans, packets of tea, and cakes first before he could transfer his gaze to her. “That salesgirl is a stunner,” Wang Zhi said to Ma and Fei, whereupon they stopped blaming him for messing up their trouser legs and trotted over to the kiosk in their turn, on the pretense of buying something but really to look at the girl. They could only keep this up for five minutes each before going back to their seats. Bu, on the other hand, stayed right there, drooping over the counter, a slow smile on his face. He started by smiling at the goods on sale in the display cabinets, but was now beaming up at the salesgirl. He simply smiled silently and did not buy anything. The salesgirl had never seen anyone like Bu, and his smiles gave her the creeps. Her eyebrows drew together in a frown, making a deep crease appear between them. She turned her face away. Wang, Ma, and Fei dropped by a few times to observe the silent stand-off between her and Bu, then returned to the group to report on the developing situation:

“Bu said to her: ‘I feel as if I’ve seen you before somewhere, I’m sure we’ve met, or maybe I’ve just dreamed about you.’ The girl ignored him, so then he complained: ‘That’s no way for a sales assistant to treat a customer.’”

“Bu offered her his name card but she refused to take it, so he said: ‘I’ll read it to you.’ Then he recited the words on the card nice and clearly, but she paid no attention at all.”

“Bu said: ‘I’ll put my card on the counter, and one day you really must come and see me in Guangzhou. I’ll take care of everything—meals, accommodation, picking you up, and dropping you off.’”

Finally, Bu left the counter. He had gained absolutely nothing (even though he had complained about the way she behaved). It was all a bit embarrassing, and when he thought that he had missed his train too, he could not help feeling despondent. But being despondent was not in his nature, so, to raise his spirits, he began to jig up and down in the middle of the waiting room. It looked like he was breakdancing, which was very fashionable back then. He hummed the tune, holding a wine bottle aloft (actually, it was only a bottle of fizz), drinking, dancing, dancing, drinking. He drank just like he was drinking wine, and the effect really was to make him act drunk. He was just executing a few fancy spins, followed by a dreamlike moon-walk, when a big fellow came up and grabbed his arm. It was unclear where this fellow had come from, or what he was doing, but he certainly dampened Bu’s spirits and brought his solo to an abrupt halt. In an instant, everything changed. Wang, Ma, and Fei had been all ready to give Bu a round of applause, and now this fellow had grabbed him and would not let go. The three of them watched to see what would happen. They had complete faith in Bu’s ability to handle any situation. In fact, they had more faith in him than in themselves. Ma Ning assumed an abstracted gaze, as if what was happening was not worthy of his attention. His expression said that the confrontation between Bu and Strongman was a piffling matter, nowhere near as interesting as Bu’s flirtation with the salesgirl. Wang Zhi and Fei Jun reacted more strongly. Bu’s attempts to chat up the pretty salesgirl had startled them, opened their eyes, as you might say. Then this murderous-looking fellow suddenly turned up and had Bu in his grip. It was all happening too quickly for them to take in. As it happened, Strongman just wanted Bu to teach him how to dance, but Bu was not interested and, in fact, had stopped dancing himself. He walked back to the bench and sat down at the opposite end of the bench from Wang, Ma, and Fei, with the three bags between them. Strongman followed Bu and sat down next to him, still trying unsuccessfully to chat him up. Bu was not scared of him, but all the same his previous good mood had deserted him and he seemed dispirited, almost timid. His three friends were, however, as confident as ever. Wang and Fei quickly followed Ma’s lead and averted their eyes from Bu and Strongman; if by chance they did glance their way, they looked indifferent or, at most, faintly curious. It was beneath their dignity to get involved in matters like this. Still, Strongman appeared intimidated by their presence, and from time to time, as he tried to engage Bu in conversation, he cast a glance their way. Ma Ning got to his feet and wandered over to the waiting-room door, just to show how relaxed he was. Strongman’s line was roughly that Bu was his accomplice and that he had brought something “important,” as he put it, for Bu, though he was not being very coherent. At one point, he said he had something and was Bu interested; at another, he said he knew Bu had brought something and he “wanted it all.” By acknowledging that this “something” was illegal, he was implicating Bu too. But Bu was having none of it: “You’ve got the wrong man!” he said. “In our line of business, it’s impossible to get the wrong man,” declared Strongman. He was, he said, in the JDT, the Public Order Joint Defence Team. He pulled out his ID to prove he was a plain-clothes policeman. When he said “we,” he did not mean him and Bu, but him and his fellow police officers. Since Strongman could not get Bu (a crook) to trust him in his incarnation as a crook, he had metamorphosed into a policeman.

Nonetheless, whether Strongman was in the guise of a crook or a policeman, the implication was still that Bu was involved in some shady business. Strongman stuffed the ID inside the red plastic cover of a tatty notebook, snapped it shut, and slipped it into an inside pocket. Then he asked for Bu’s ID. Bu said he wanted a proper look at Strongman’s ID; otherwise, there was no way he was getting out his own ID. Strongman said, “Are you saying I’m not a policeman?” “Yes, I am!” said Bu. “Why?” asked Strongman. “I’m a plainclothes officer,” he added. “Plainclothes officers, uniformed officers, there’s no such thing!” said Bu. “You don’t know anything!” said Strongman. “There are plainclothes police, and there are special agents too!” They argued back and forth over the checking of IDs, and Strongman proved extremely clear-headed. He pulled his ID out of his pocket again, as a bargaining counter, and put it in Bu’s hands, so he could have a good look. Old Bu peered at it in the dim light for a long time but still could not be sure what kind of an ID this was. In the box headed “Occupation,” a single word was written: “Worker.” There were three more boxes, for name and gender, and in the last box was written “member of the Public Order Joint Defense Team.” With a grim laugh, Bu handed the red notebook back to Strongman. “You’re not a policeman!” he said. Strongman did not deny it; he just demanded Bu’s ID once more. “If you’re not a policeman, you have no right to check my ID,” said Bu. “Well, you’re not a policeman, so how come you were able to look at my ID?” said Strongman. “Because you showed it to me. That’s your responsibility,” said Bu. “The first time I showed it to you, the second time you asked for it,” said Strongman. “You’ve had two looks at my ID. Why are you still arguing?” He reached across Bu for the bag, but Bu put a restraining hand on his bag, then grabbed Strongman’s hand. The conflict was escalating into a tug-of-war, and Wang, Ma, and Fei got nervously to their feet at the other end of the bench. By this time, the waiting room was filling up, and there were many times more people than there had been when they arrived. There were over a hundred, in fact, as nearly an hour had passed and the ferry was approaching from the south bank. Just now, the waiting passengers were forming into a queue, ready to show their tickets and embark. Wang, Ma, and Fei each took one of Bu’s bags and went to stand in the queue, in the hopes that, at the last moment, Bu would manage to wrest himself from the clutches of Strongman. If he could just get on the boat, that would be an end of it. Easier said than done. Strongman, in high dudgeon, insisted he was taking Bu off to the police post. He asserted that there was something in Bu’s luggage (he had temporarily dropped the ID matter), although the bags by this time were on board the ferry with Bu’s friends. In actual fact, if Bu was not able to board, then the friends would not cross either. They had come solely to see him off. They just acted as if they were leaving, in the hopes that the confrontation between Bu and Strongman could come to a speedy end. If he could not get away, then it did not matter whether or not they missed the boat. Strongman was pushing and shoving with considerable force and trying to twist one of Bu’s arms behind his back. Bu struggled frantically to get free—this was his last opportunity to get on board the ferry. His stubborn resistance only infuriated Strongman. At that moment, a bunch of people burst through the waiting-room door, and he became bolder still. These were his cronies. Even before he actually saw them, the roar of motorbike engines had encouraged him to drop the niceties with Bu. Strongman must have got them here. No doubt it went something like this: he did not dare beat up Bu while Wang, Ma, and Fei were with him, so all that pestering was by way of delaying tactics. Then perhaps a friend was strolling by, stuck his head through the door, and made to come to his aid, but Strongman signaled to him to go and fetch help. Or perhaps it had not happened like that. The salesgirl at the kiosk might have reported the disturbance, or likely had summoned Strongman in the first place, because Bu and his friends were harassing her. Maybe Strongman was actually her boyfriend, or she was somehow under his protection. Otherwise, why had Strongman picked a quarrel with Bu the moment he arrived? The bunch of people who burst through the waiting-room door also headed straight for Bu—if Strongman had not summoned them, then that would have been very strange. At the very least, they must know him. At any rate, they came to his aid without further ado when they saw him tackling this tall man with three friends. As soon as his mates were on the scene, Strongman had to strike a belligerent pose. No more pussy-footing around. He tried his best to twist Bu’s arms behind his back but failed because Bu, although no match for Strongman in terms of physical strength, was much taller. Unthreatened by Strongman, Bu simply continued to stand tall. Besides, at this point, Wang, Ma, and Fei had made up their minds that they were not going and had come back. They could not sit and watch while Bu and Strongman wrestled. Ma Ning nipped behind Strongman, but, at that moment, a tall skinny fellow leaped off his motorbike and burst in, pushing his way through and shouting: “Where is he? Where is he?” In actual fact, he could see Bu and his friends perfectly well, so there was no need to ask. By this time, the passengers had all gone through the ticket check and only Bu and his friends, and Strongman, remained in the waiting room. There was no one else, apart from the men and women who had followed the lanky fellow in. So the crowds that Lanky had pushed aside to get across the room were purely imaginary and, with no people around him, he looked like he was wading through water. A stroke with his left arm, then with his right arm, and he was in front of Bu. As he was flailing along, he kicked off the red slip-on sandals he was wearing. One flew three feet into the air, describing an arc and landing twenty feet away. The other went in a different direction, rising to the same height and landing a similar distance away. This worked brilliantly, instantly giving him the upper hand. It should be noted that a certain style of red plastic slipper was an essential accessory for the town’s petty crooks in those days. Like a badge of office, it earned the wearer the immediate respect of ordinary folk. For Lanky to throw off his slippers was a ritual akin to rolling up one’s sleeve and removing one’s watch before a fight. Lanky certainly understood red slip-ons and how to use them to maximum effect.

Barefoot, Lanky began to lay into Bu. But his fist had not even made contact before he gave a screech. He had trodden on a fragment of broken glass—his foot had landed just where Wang Zhi had dropped the fizz bottle and was now covered in blood. Lanky lost all his fighting spirit and shouted “Huazi! Huazi!” A bleach- haired woman, who might have been his girlfriend, as she had arrived on the back of Lanky’s motorbike, pushed through. “Huazi! I’ve hurt my foot,” Lanky said to her. “Arsehole!” Huazi shouted at him, and Lanky flared up at her: “You cunt! I’m going to beat you up, you see if I don’t!” They started a flaming row and, for the moment, Strongman and Bu were forgotten. Wang, Ma, and Fei, for their part, began to take a keen interest in Lanky’s foot. It was a nasty cut on the side of his right big toe, there was blood all over the floor, and it looked as if the toe was only attached by a layer of skin. Amid the confusion, Wang Zhi caught his friends’ eyes and they exchanged knowing smiles. Purely humanitarian principles dictated that they should put any differences aside and they urged Lanky to go to hospital and get his foot seen to. Wang Zhi tried to show Huazi how to stop the bleeding—he was even willing to do it himself if the need arose. Maybe they went a bit over the top with their peace offensive because their opponents felt they were being made fun of. (And, of course, they were teasing Lanky, but the thing was that they were touched by their own words, and began to see this as a golden opportunity to exchange guns for ploughshares.) That made Strongman leave Bu and hurry over to rally the troops. Wang Zhi’s conscience pricked him: Would Strongman spot the fact that the broken glass came from a fizz bottle and guess that he, Wang Zhi, had broken it? Of course, he had not seen Wang Zhi break it, but if he had any brains, he might guess it was one of their bottles and they had broken it. The truth was that the foursome were in some peril: If Strongman or Lanky or any of that lot accused them of breaking the bottle, it would be curtains for them. But even Strongman did not have this brainwave, still less Lanky and the others. Wang Zhi reckoned that, of all of them, Strongman was the one with the brains. And just now, Strongman the brains was sticking to his guns about Bu having something in his luggage and insisting that he was going to take them (Bu, Wang, Ma, and Fei) to the police post. Ma and Fei were quite unconcerned. “There’s nothing in Bu’s luggage,” they said firmly, and asked Strongman: “What will you do if you find nothing?” “If there’s nothing there, then I’ll pluck out my eyes!” said Strongman. He was determined to get the four of them out of the waiting room and onto the street. Wang Zhi was alarmed—he knew there really was something in Bu’s luggage (that was why he judged Strongman to be the brainiest of the lot of them), but only he and Bu knew this.

That “something” was not that important in itself. It was just a text. But there were so few copies of it and it had been photocopied so often that it almost looked hand-written. It had also been passed from reader to reader and was getting tatty, all of which increased its air of mystery. Ma and Fei should have been told about this thing in advance, but, because of the meal, the others had not got around to it. And now, of course, was certainly not the right time. As Ma and Fei stoutly maintained their innocence, Wang Zhi felt both happy and sad. Happy because they did not know the truth, so had a clear conscience. They spoke with such conviction that they even swayed Wang Zhi into believing that there really was nothing suspicious in Bu’s luggage. Strongman’s accusation seemed like an outrageous slur. In the circumstances, it would be unwise to divulge the truth to Ma and Fei; if they knew, they would be unlikely to act with such righteous indignation. In fact, they would probably have a bad conscience like Wang Zhi, and would do anything to appease their adversary. What worried Wang Zhi now was that Ma and Fei would go over the top and insist on the bags being inspected. The pair of them had never been unjustly accused of anything and, given the slightest encouragement, they might well persevere. By this time, both sides had left Lanky to his fate, and were deadlocked over whether or not to go to the police. The one side maintained there was something in Bu’s bags, and they should be taken for examination; the other side stoutly maintained there was nothing illicit in them. They were not afraid of any examination. The problem as they saw it was that if and when they were proved innocent, what then? Wang Zhi was in a quandary: Going to the police post had to mean opening the luggage, but if they did not go, the waiting room would fill up with more of their adversaries. Although Lanky had lost the will to fight, he was still moaning and groaning on the sidelines, and the newcomers would immediately assume that Wang and his friends had hurt him and would jump on them. However hard Wang Zhi tried to explain, he was only one voice against all Lanky’s (and Strongman’s) mates, who kept streaming in.

At this point, Ma Ning thrust one hand into his pocket and left it there so it looked as if he was holding a knife or a screwdriver. That was the impression he wanted to give, but it was equally possible that he had nothing in his hand, and was just making a fist. Perhaps the thing poking up from his trousers was only a finger. He stood like this, using his burly body and imaginary weapon to block the enemy’s way. Strongman was not running any risks and gripped Ma Ning’s wrist: “Now try and get your hand out!” Actually, if Ma Ning really did have a weapon, Strongman was not going to allow him to flash it around. But if Ma Ning had nothing, then there was no need for him really to bring his hand out. So the pair stood glaring at each other, locked in a stalemate.

In the meantime, Wang Zhi and Ma Ning had differing but complementary strategies: One would use peaceful means, the other, armed force, to divide up the people clustered around each of them in the waiting room. The trouble was that they risked being outflanked and defeated. Fei Jun could have come to their aid, but no one took any notice of him; in fact, he was completely ignored. All along, he had failed to take a clear stand, and now things had turned critical. How was he to choose whom to help? Or rather, who most needed his help? He pushed his way over to Wang Zhi, and spoke in support of Wang Zhi’s peace plan, but no one took any notice, not even Wang Zhi. So then he went over to Ma Ning, and pushed his own hand into his pocket and left it there, just like his friend. But no one came and gripped his wrist. Fei Jun poked his trousers up with his finger and waited, and waited, until even he began to wonder whether he had a dagger in there—or was it an erection? If it was a dagger, how had he got it there?

Strongman, thinking about the three bags, was reminded of their owner, Bu. He had disappeared, and Ma Ning had become Strongman’s adversary instead, but by the time he realized this, it was too late. The three bags had vanished without trace, along with their owner. One could argue that Bu had silently made his escape with the connivance of Wang, Fei, and Ma. Another way of looking at it was that Strongman had deliberately let Bu go, because he was unable to be quite sure that there really was anything illicit in Bu’s bags. If the bags and Bu disappeared, then there was no one to say if there was, or was not, something in them. And now that Bu had gone, Strongman toughened up visibly. He not only insisted there was something in Bu’s bags, he also claimed to have seen it with his own eyes. Otherwise, why would he (Bu) have done a runner? He insisted that Wang, Ma, and Fei, as Bu’s accomplices, must accompany him to the police post. Strongman only had one aim at this point: to prove that he was correct. On this, Wang Zhi was in complete agreement with him; now that Bu had disappeared, a weight was lifted off his shoulders. He reckoned Bu had taken advantage of the ruckus to board the ferry and leave, and might be on the other bank already. In taking his three bags, he had taken that worrying “something” too. In other words, that something could not be proven ever to have existed, and it was time that he (Wang Zhi) was exonerated.

On balance, Wang Zhi figured it would be best to go to the police post with Strongman, even though it meant venturing out into dark, unfamiliar streets fraught with dangers. More and more of Strongman’s cronies had turned up, and staying in the waiting room was no longer an option. It was as bad as the street outside, or worse.

The three of them allowed themselves to be pushed outside by Strongman and his posse. Out in the street, the crowd wanted to give them a beating in revenge for the injury sustained by Lanky, but Strongman put a stop to that. At this point, he only wanted to prove he was correct, and to do that, he needed to get them to the local police post. It would put him in the wrong if Wang Zhi, Ma Ning, and Fei Jun were beaten to a pulp before he had achieved his aim. So Strongman went around keeping everyone in order.

The police post was on the river embankment, a lonely wooden shack with a single red light hanging over the door. They could see the red glow from the lamp from a distance, but it took a while to get there. The road was pitch dark and the air was full of that special smell of smoke mixed with river water. Strongman’s cronies swore at Wang, Ma, and Fei in a barely comprehensible dialect as they escorted them along. Wang, Ma, and Fei were feeling increasingly nervous, but at least Strongman was a friendly face, having spent the previous couple of hours with them, and they tried their best to locate him by his shape and voice and stick close. In fact, he really was protecting them but he had his hands full going back and forth to see to them, as they were in three different places.

He shouted reprimands at his accomplices at top volume and his yells were reassuring, even if they were ear-splitting and vulgar. Punches landed on Wang, Ma, and Fei in the darkness, a result of Strongman’s inadequate care, but at least his care ensured that the consequences were not worse. Strongman was clearly the leader, and most of the men did what he said, though the women continued to launch surprise attacks on their victims. Luckily, being women, they were not as strong as the men and tended to administer nips and pinches, with very few genuine punches. Not life-threatening, but extremely painful nonetheless. These women must have belonged with Strongman and Lanky, or perhaps they were being incited by Strongman’s girlfriend (the salesgirl) or Lanky’s girlfriend, Huazi, the one with the bleached hair. United in their fury against these three outsiders, they swore that they would put them to death. It was not that far from the waiting room at the ferry terminal to the police post, about 200 meters, but getting there took a very long time, because internal divisions among Strongman’s supporters, combined with the large numbers involved, made the troops hard to maneuver.

The police post was so small that only those directly involved were allowed in and Strongman had to leave his friends outside. Lanky would have been admitted, but he was in a lot of pain and was taken off to see a doctor. That left five of them, including the officer on duty. Wang Zhi and the other two felt safe once they were inside, because they were three against one opponent, with the officer playing umpire. Outside, the serried ranks of onlookers (Strongman’s mates, women, family, friends, and fellow villagers) almost hid the little shack from view. It would be fair to say that no one there was not involved one way or another. They peered in and watched every movement through the door, windows, and cracks in the boards. Inside, a one-hundred-watt bulb glared from the ceiling. With the riff-raff outside, Wang Zhi and his friends had a three-to-one advantage, which increased their self-confidence. However, the planking was not soundproof and it sounded like there were at least a hundred onlookers. They were not intentionally making a din. In fact, they were keeping their voices down, but the resulting hum from the talk was all the more threatening. That was the source of Strongman’s confidence. He was convinced that he only had to give the nod and his supporters would tear the shack down. He did not trouble to hide his complacency.

Officer Li was only about twenty years old, and Strongman started to address him as “young Li this” and “young Li that.” Officer Li frowned in annoyance and asked: “What did you bring them here for?” “There was this guy with three bags, and there’s something in one of them,” said Strongman. Li asked: “Is it theirs?” “No,” said Strongman. “Well, if it isn’t their bag, then why bring them here?” “Because they’re together.” “So, where’s the thing?” “In the bag.” “And where’s the bag?” “With the person carrying it.” Li got seriously annoyed at that: “Why are you messing with me? There’s no perp and no stolen goods. Why are you kicking up such a fuss?” “Young Li!” exclaimed Strongman. “You’re being unkind! You and I go back a long way. We’re mates!” “I’m not your mate. Don’t even go there!”

Wang Zhi was observing this exchange with close attention, and at this point he pulled his teacher’s ID out of his pocket and handed it to Li: “Look, I’m a university teacher. Ma here is a lawyer and Fei Jun is a reporter. We’re all educated people. D’you think we’d run around breaking the law? We crossed the river today to see a friend off on a trip… and we find ourselves with this bunch of riffraff. If you’ll forgive me for being direct, who on earth are they?”

Li scrutinized Wang Zhi. The harsh light made the latter look even more delicate and fair-skinned than usual, while his companions, sitting quietly, smoking on the only two chairs in the room, were also smartly dressed and well-mannered. By contrast, Strongman had called Li his “mate,” and kept pushing his sweatshirt sleeves up to his shoulder, where the folds piled up on either side of his thick neck, showing highly developed biceps that rippled under the skin, like a great fat rat. There was a tattoo on his deltoids, though it was clumsily done and you could not make out the design or the writing. Strongman had a fearsome face, with coarse, oily skin… It was the first time Wang Zhi and the others had seen him clearly, because the lighting had been so dim in the ferry terminal waiting room, and in retrospect they felt like they had had a lucky escape.

Officer Li gave the teacher’s ID back to Wang Zhi and refrained from asking Ma for his lawyer’s ID or Fei for his reporter’s ID. If he had insisted that they produce their professional IDs, they would not have done so. Not because they did not have them today, but because they did not have them, period. Wang had lied about their professions in order to strengthen their case—you didn’t mess with a lawyer and a reporter, even if you were a policeman. Moreover, Wang Zhi was confident of winning Li’s trust. His teacher’s ID was genuine, and when he said he was a university professor, this was no word of a lie. His face, with its look of patient pedagogy, adorned by a pair of black-rimmed glasses, his thin red lips… If he wasn’t a teacher, who was? Wang Zhi calculated that now that Li had been won over, he would not be suspicions about Ma and Fei. Of course, Li had his own reasons for not pursuing the matter. Wang Zhi had asked him who and what Strongman was, and Li could not answer. That was yet another reason he did not check up on the veracity of Ma’s and Fei’s ID. The two sides cancelled each other out.

The truth was that Strongman had done time in a labor camp but was now out on parole and helping in the JDT. This had nothing to do with Li, nor had it been his decision. However, Li was very young, and, conscious of his dignity, he was unwilling to divulge this fact to these three intellectuals. If he told them that Strongman was in the JDT, it made them colleagues, and that did not reflect well on him, Li. And if he admitted that Strongman was on parole from a labor camp, Wang and his friends would surely demand that Strongman be punished for manhandling them. But that wouldn’t do at all. Moreover, there was a lawyer present. Was it legal to have co-opted a paroled prisoner into the civil defense team? Li had no way of knowing. And he wanted to avoid trouble, so he said to Strongman: “Even if you’re trying to do your bit, you can’t come running here just like that!” There was an implied criticism contained in the comment, and also a hinted reminder of his parole. Li had a plan. He addressed Wang, Ma, and Fei with utmost courtesy: “There has been a misunderstanding. I do beg your pardon. If there are shortcomings in the way we have carried out our work, I do most sincerely apologize. If there is nothing else, the three of you are free to go…”

Strongman bridled at that. He rushed to the door and blocked their exit with his substantial bulk. He had gone to a considerable amount of trouble to arrest the three, and he wasn’t going to let Li release them that easily. These intellectuals had thoroughly humiliated him. He panted so hard with rage that his chest rose and fell like a bellows. Looking Li straight in the eye, he said, fiercely: “No one’s letting these three go!” The threesome had not been very happy about leaving because of all Strongman’s cronies milling around the shack. Walking out would be very dangerous, but they had no excuse to stay. Strongman’s refusal to let them go would have suited them down to the ground. But they could not show their relief. If Strongman saw through their ruse, he might even hand them over to his cronies, since Li was unwilling to adjudicate on the matter. In view of these considerations, Wang, Ma, and Fei decided to act as if they had urgent business to attend to, and could not be delayed a moment longer. Wang Zhi looked at his watch and told them he had to prepare for his classes this evening. Fei Jun had an article to submit, and Ma was going to be in court tomorrow and had a desk covered in paperwork to go through before then. They really had to be on their way. To reinforce the point, Wang Zhi began to expound: Time was of the essence in today’s society; time meant efficiency, and money—in fact, life itself. There was no need for further apologies or compensation, he said. Strongman could not compensate for their wasted time. Of course, even though they were willing to let the matter drop, it was crucial that Strongman realize the seriousness of the matter… Wang Zhi pontificated, effortlessly transforming the duty officer’s shack into a lecture theater. In fact, although his words told them he wanted to be off without delay, he was procrastinating. Strongman just stared blankly at Wang Zhi, as if hypnotized. His sturdy body had not budged, however. From the moment Wang began his lecture, Strongman stayed exactly where he was.

With Strongman on guard in the doorway like a door god, Officer Li could hardly contain his annoyance. Not that he was annoyed at Wang Zhi’s speechifying, far from it, he absolutely approved of what Wang was saying. He now admired the three men more than ever and wanted to hear more. (Occasions like this did not come along often.) It was Strongman that Li was annoyed with, because the former was disrespecting him. In his heart of hearts, Li did not want the threesome to go, either, but he was a bright lad and he knew he could not keep them. He should clear the way for them, make Strongman stand to one side, and clear everyone away from the door. He had to. Firstly, it was his responsibility, and his reputation depended on it. Secondly, it laid the basis for friendship with people like Wang Zhi in the future. Having thought thus far, Li went over and grabbed Strongman, pulled his face close, and said threateningly: “Pull yourself together! Don’t you know where you are?” Gripped by his collar (or rather by the front of his sweatshirt, because he didn’t have a collar), Strongman allowed himself to be pulled to one side. But worried that his sweatshirt might get torn, he grasped the young man’s wrist to stop him from pulling too hard. “Let go! Are you going to let go or not?” he cried. “No, I’m not, and I’m not going to let you make trouble, either,” said Li. The pair of them wrestled their way to the table and from the table to the folding bed. Strongman was easily holding his own and was only prevented from retaliating by certain misgivings.

Wang Zhi began to feel very guilty. Li and Strongman were fighting because of him and his friends. Even though the doorway was clear now, the threesome could not make up their minds. To go or not to go? One issue was whether Strongman’s cronies would assault them if they went outside. The second was: would it be disloyal to leave now? Should they not wait and see the outcome of the punch-up? It was hard to tell who would win. As it happened, the decision was taken for them, as those outside blocked the entrance, not just preventing Wang, Fei, and Ma from leaving but actually pressing inside to see what the kerfuffle was about. Not that they dared to pile in against Li, who was, after all, a police officer. You couldn’t touch one of them, even in a kerfuffle. By this time, they had completely forgotten why Strongman and Li were fighting. They had also forgotten Wang Zhi and his friends and were certainly not intentionally stopping them from leaving. The friends were astonished to realize that they were no longer the center of attention. Instead, they were squeezed in here, watching a brawl that seemed to have no rhyme or reason to it. If they were really the cause of the fight, then that was even harder to understand. Why had they come north of the river, and why hadn’t they gone home, given the lateness of the hour? Had they stayed just to watch a community policeman and a local thug have a dust-up? They did not need to be here, in fact, they could simply have taken advantage of the mayhem to leave. No one had any interest in stopping them now. Yet there was something fascinating about the fight, and Wang, Ma, and Fei, oblivious to the danger, were unable to tear themselves away. Together with the other spectators, they shifted one way and the other, in order to give Strongman and young Li room to move. The room was only seven or eight square meters, and it was hard for such large numbers of people to surge forward together, fall back together, move to the left or right, but they had to leave enough room for the combatants to avoid touching them or getting accidentally injured themselves. For a while, Wang, Ma, and Fei were quite caught up in the action, almost intoxicated, and certainly unwilling to up and go.

There were dozens of people smoking in the small room, and the light from the hundred-watt bulb made the smoke haze look like a lovely veil, or a curtain. The bulb hung low, and Li knocked it with his head so that it began to swing back and forth. The two combatants thus found themselves alternately in and outside the circle of light. Wang Zhi watched the gigantic shadows thrown by himself and the other spectators wavering over the wall, and felt he was in some prehistoric cavern, and the swaying light bulb was a flickering bonfire. And all because Li’s head had knocked the light bulb. Li’s cap now sat far back on his head, and Strongman’s grappling had pulled the officer’s uniform awry. His collar gaped, revealing the patterned shirt underneath. The whole effect was to diminish his authority considerably, especially in the eyes of Strongman. The latter judged people by their appearance, and he was especially sensitive to policemen, or rather to their uniform. Now, he had the opportunity to launch an attack on a police uniform, and he was in the grip of both joy and fear. Officer Li had lost two buttons and was red in the face and panting with rage as he exchanged abuse with Strongman in the local dialect. You’re just relying on your uniform, thought Strongman. You’d never be my match without it! Li was quite well aware of this and took every available opportunity to straighten his uniform. But Strongman did all he could to deprive him of those opportunities. Strongman was not out to get Li, only his uniform. Of course, if Li had not been wearing the uniform, Strongman’s blows would have fallen on his body, and something held him back from that. Wang Zhi began to understand: It was because the two combatants were unequally matched that the fight was going on so long. Strongman was worried that without his uniform, Li would definitely come off worst and that was causing him to put the brakes on. If that happened, Strongman was in big trouble. It was unthinkable to injure a policeman. One way or another, Li would sort him out and would no doubt vent his spleen on Wang, Fei, and Ma’s behalf too. But that would have to come at the price of Li getting injured and Wang Zhi could not accept that. He felt conflicted. Faced with fanning the flames or pouring oil on troubled waters, he decided to play peace-maker. That would be good for both sides and would win their sympathy. His efforts would make an especially good impression on Strongman’s cronies. One way or another (here Wang Zhi was taking the long view), they had to win the masses’ sympathies. True, the elderly and the children had gone home to bed, but those who remained, although they had nothing to do with the conflict, were a bunch of ruffians in the prime of their youth, just spoiling for a fight and a chance to let off steam. Besides, after midnight, the ferries ran every two hours, and even when the three of them managed to get away, they still could not cross the river. It was going to be a very long wait at the wharf for the next ferry. They were in a strange place in the pitch dark. Anything might happen. These were further reasons Wang Zhi found it politic to adopt a conciliatory stance. He reminded Strongman: “He’s a cop. Don’t make trouble for yourself!” By that time, Li’s cap had flown off and his jacket was hanging open. All he had on his head now was the mark of the cap brim. Strongman kept going, gripping Li’s hair as they rolled around on the narrow camp bed. Li was yelling: “Black-skin! Black-skin! Let go of my hair!” The eponymous Black Skin (that is, Strongman) was surprised into letting go, and a two- inch tuft of black hair was wafted away in the draft created by their struggle. Now, it was not Li’s uniform that had suffered damage, but a part of his body, and things were getting more serious.

The agony of having his hair pulled out brought Li to his senses, and he let go and lay motionless on his back on the bed. He actually could not remember how he had got into this fight with Strongman and ended up losing a hank of hair. Of course it had started with his attempt to move Strongman away from the door, so that the three educated gentlemen could leave. But somehow they were still here. Even if his aim was to subdue Strongman, there had been no need to get into a bare-knuckle fight and exchange abuse. Truncheons and handcuffs hung from the wall, and there was a pistol in the drawer, but today it had not occurred to him to use them. He could have gone to his desk and made a phone call to ask for back-up. How had it come to this? His uniform was ruined, and there was the hank of hair he had lost too…

Once Li stopped, Strongman stopped too. He looked dazed, as if he was wondering what to do next. He was not as quick-thinking as Li and could not remember the reason for their fight, either. Absent-mindedly, he twirled some strands of Li’s hair between his fingers. Unaware of Wang, Ma, and Fei, who stood behind him, he just stared at Li, wondering what to do now and desperate to find the answer in his opponent’s face. With slow deliberation, Li got up off the bed and straightened his clothing. He ran his five fingers through his hair. Strongman handed him his cap with great respect and bent down, his bum stuck straight up in the air, to look for the missing buttons. He turned around, saw the three friends, and bared his teeth in a smile. Once he had handed over the buttons, Strongman wanted to say a few words to Li by way of apology, but Li silenced him with a gesture. Li vigorously patted the dust off his uniform and turned to straighten the tangled bedding. At this point, everyone was watching his every move, especially Strongman. Li was enjoying their attention. Although he was young and fit, he rarely had the chance to get into fights, and he found it an intoxicating feeling. The room was full of people, but all the same you could have heard a pin drop. Under their gaze, he strolled over to his desk to put through a phone call to the local police station, asking them to send officers and a car. Then he turned to Wang, Fei, and Ma: “I’m terribly sorry, I’m afraid I must ask you to wait a little while longer.” They would be staying not as suspects in a crime, but as witnesses, because they had seen Strongman beat up a police officer. There were, of course, plenty of other witnesses, but they were educated and had better brains and closer powers of observation, and could express an opinion more succinctly. Asking them to stay was a sign of respect, a tribute to their reputation. In any case, since they were the ones who had started the whole business, the threesome felt responsible. As soon as Strongman realized that Li was not letting Wang and his friends go, he cheered up. At least his efforts had not all been in vain. If he had not stood in their way, would they not have vanished without trace? And if he had not got into a fight with Li, they would not have stayed to watch the fun. If he had not pulled out a hank of Li’s hair, the officer would not have changed his mind. And if he hadn’t changed his mind and had released Wang, Ma and Fei, then his, Strongman’s, suspicions would not be proved correct. Strongman was extremely gratified by his reasoning, at first. “I told you to get them to the police station,” he said to Li. “If you’d listened to me, none of this would have happened…” But Li did not answer, and Strongman then began to have misgivings. However, he had to persist in maintaining that Wang, Ma, and Fei were lawless elements. He had no doubt these educated folk would confess under duress, and would be revealed as having committed some crime (anything was possible nowadays). And if that was proved, it would make up for the fact that he had pulled Li’s hair out, and his achievement would be recognized. Li would not only not be compensated for the loss of his hair, he would have to face the consequences of his dereliction of duty, and would be discharged from the police by way of punishment. Even if it could not be proved that these three intellectuals had committed a crime, it could not be proved that they had not… At this thought, Strongman relaxed. As everyone waited quietly for someone to come from the station, Lanky turned up. He had not been seen for two hours, and there was a considerable change in his appearance: his foot was bandaged, and he was supporting himself on a stick. He held his bandaged foot in the air, chary of putting it to the ground, even very gingerly. Lanky had the air of a man who had been lame for years. Having walked back from the hospital emergency room, he had gone first to the place where he was injured, the ferry waiting room at the wharf, but found it deserted. He finally tracked down Strongman and his cronies at the police post. He had made slow going. What with the time he spent in the hospital, and the time he took hobbling along on his crutch, it was one in the morning before he got there. Fortunately, everyone was still there, which was some consolation. Lanky was the kind of man who liked a good ruckus; there was nothing he found more unbearable than the end of the show when everyone had dispersed, so when he got to the door of the police post he listened. All was silent. It was only when he entered that he saw thirty or forty people hunkered down inside and every single one of the main players present. He relaxed.

He brought news: Bu was still here. He had missed the boat, but did not dare to go back to the waiting room so instead had taken refuge in the ticket office.

Its door opened not into the waiting room, but to the outside (and it only had one ticket window). To get into the ticket office, you had to pass through the dock’s warehouse. A middle-aged woman happened to be on duty and had taken pity on Bu, perhaps because he was being pursued by all and sundry, or maybe she just thought Strongman and his lot were a bunch of thugs, or, then again, perhaps she had it in for their girlfriends (for example, the girl at the snack counter). Whatever the reason, she gave Bu the bed in her office. It was summer and the bed was covered with a mosquito net. Bu stowed his three bags and was able to have a nice nap. He told the woman that he would sleep for just an hour, because he wanted to catch the next ferry, but an hour later, he was so sound asleep that he was drooling. She did not have the heart to wake him and he missed another ferry. When he awoke to this fact, the woman reassured him: “You’re safe and sound here. You’ve got the mosquito net over you, and a door to the outside and the courtyard has a double iron gate. No one can get in, so you might as well sleep till daylight.” A befuddled Bu found that a very appealing prospect indeed.

A bulb shed a yellow light through the netting. On the bench, the middle-aged woman sat at her knitting—she was making a string bag, or perhaps it was a table cloth. Outside the window, the mosquitoes whined and the frogs croaked, and, from time to time, a horn tooted. Bu felt that this woman could have been his mother, and the ticket office reminded him of a place he had stayed as a child. He fell into a dreamlike state that he found very pleasant. He wished it would go on and on. At least this way he did not feel so anxious.

In the lane outside, Lanky could see through the crack between the double gates into the ticket office. It was hot, so the woman had left the door open and shut only the mosquito screen. Lanky allowed his gaze to travel over this familiar scene and was startled to see Bu’s big shoes. Lanky had been peeping into the ticket office for years. Especially in summer, he passed down this road almost every day and always peered in. At the start, he was concerned to see whether the woman on duty was young and pretty, but then he no longer cared. Just so long as she was a woman. It was always women who worked in the ticket office, night shift included, which suited Lanky down to the ground. Any woman would do, he didn’t even need to look properly, it was enough to know that there was a woman inside, and that she was asleep under the net. As time went by (and especially after he hooked up with a girlfriend), he just peeped out of habit. Today, he took his usual look and was surprised to see this big pair of men’s shoes. But his first thought was not, A man’s having sex with the ticket seller, or There’s adultery going on here, but, I bet Bu’s still around and hiding here. He had hit the nail right on the head. But this, rather than demonstrating his intelligence, simply showed his keen desire for a certain outcome. He was as excited as someone who had caught adulterers in flagrante, and he could scarcely constrain himself from rushing in and hauling Bu out of the bed. Only the tall gate stood in his way. Even more annoyingly, he was a mere shadow of the man he had been. Although he had only been a cripple for a couple of hours, it was something he was going to have to get used to. He was aware that he could no longer rely on his own courage and strength, and if he messed up, he might forewarn the enemy. So he kept very quiet, and hobbled off to the police post to summon reinforcements.

Everyone reacted differently to Lanky’s news. Actually, Strongman was not enthusiastic at all. He had been lying when he claimed that Bu had “something” in his bags and that he had seen it with his own eyes. He had just been saying it, by way of a threat. What worried him now was Ma Ning and Fei Jun’s obvious confidence that they could open Bu’s bags for inspection (since he had not left), and thus prove their innocence. Strongman was a big mouth, as Lanky knew quite well, and the reason why he was full of excitement was not because he believed Strongman was telling the truth. It was that he was curious. Of all of them, he was the only one who really wanted to know if there was anything in Bu’s bag. If there was, then he could take credit for helping Strongman. If there wasn’t, then the responsibility was Strongman’s and he had nothing to do with it. The man who was most despondent when he heard that Bu was still at the wharf was Wang Zhi. He knew there was definitely something in Bu’s bag (in fact, it was he who put the thing in there). His feeling of despair was focused on Strongman. Strongman just said whatever came into his head, but it was theoretically possible that his words might prove disastrous. Officer Li, however, really did not give a damn what was in Bu’s bags. The most important thing for him was that Strongman had pulled out his hair, and if Strongman thought that he could get off scot-free, he had another thing coming. Strongman deserved to be punished whether or not there was anything in Bu’s bags, more severely for attacking a policeman, in fact. Officer Li decided that the two matters, the something in the bag and the attack on him, should be dealt with together. He wanted to be seen to be playing fair, to convince Strongman and Lanky and their cronies that justice was being done; once the police van turned up, locals and visitors alike would be taken to the police station to be dealt with. At the same time, Lanky would be tasked with going to the ticket office at the wharf to fetch Bu back to the police post. Then they could check what, if anything, was in his bags.

Thus, Lanky and three or four other men were sent post-haste to the wharf. There, the iron gate blocked their way as before. Through the crack, they could see the ticket office and the mosquito net hanging inside. The little group squabbled noisily over who should peer through the crack (there was only one crack down the middle, between the two halves of the gate). Lanky shouted at Bu not to try going anywhere. Of course, he didn’t know Bu’s name, so what he actually shouted was: “Stop, thief! Someone’s in there thieving!” Then he figured that what he’d shouted didn’t carry enough weight and wouldn’t get the attention of the onlookers, so he shouted instead: “Murderer! Someone’s been murdered and he’s got blood all over him. Don’t let the fucker run away!” Lanky wondered if he hadn’t gone over the top in calling Bu a murderer. He had even reduced his companions to a terrified silence. However, nothing and no one else in the neighborhood stirred. Then he thundered on the gate with his fist, but it did not give way, so they could not rush in and seize this petty thief—or murderer. All they could do was watch Bu, who was sound asleep in bed inside, just a couple of paces away from them. The clanging and banging on the gate seemed to have no effect on him, and this infuriated Lanky and his mates all the more. They switched to iron bars and wooden sticks, and even their metal- soled suede shoes, to beat the door. These were more effective than banging on it with their bare hands, and the spikes along the top of the gate shook. Lanky couldn’t kick the gate like his mates because of his injury, but he had a crutch to attack it with, and it made every bit as much noise as their metal-soled shoes. The only result was to vent their rage and show how ferocious they were. What they ought to have done was climb over and rush in to grab Bu, before he fled for a second time. But the gate was taller than normal, and the spikes along the top were sharper than usual too. There was even electrical wire running between the spikes, fastened to the walls on either side. This building was as secure as a prison. The middle- aged woman certainly appreciated the security, especially now that she was hiding Bu. She had dared do that precisely because of those anti-burglar measures, and when she was rumbled, she was quite prepared to stand up to Lanky and his mates. In fact, she admitted frankly and with pride that he was in her bed, and she absolutely refused to hand him over to them. “If you’re clever enough, you’ll find a way in,” she said. But that was precisely what they could not do. Probably only Lanky had the guts to climb over the gate, but he had an injured foot (otherwise, he would have been up and over a long time ago). Lanky vented his anger on the gate, and was reduced to exchanging insults with the old woman inside. He was extremely annoyed. The woman was physically too weak to truss a chicken, but she had a vicious tongue, and, in that respect, Lanky was no match for her, nor were his mates, as she quite well knew. Superiority in numbers meant nothing. They were getting nowhere. All they could do was try and shout loud enough to drown out the woman’s obscenities.

All this time, Strongman had been waiting for Lanky to come back to the police post, unwilling to leave without him. But now it wasn’t up to him. Two more police officers turned up, one of whom was the deputy station chief. They were far more decisive than young Li had been. When they saw what a sorry state he was in, they peremptorily ordered Strongman off the premises and into the motorbike-van they had left outside, its engine idling. Strongman put up a fierce struggle, having finally realized that he was being treated as a criminal. The station chief went to cuff him, and Strongman was so terrified that he bit the man. The chief yelled in pain and his subordinate promptly knocked Strongman out cold. The chief tossed the cufflinks over, and told him to cuff himself to the perp, who was lying on the ground like a corpse. He shook his right wrist, where Strongman had left bloody tooth marks, then, with Li’s help, they stuffed Strongman head-first into the back of the van. The junior officer drove, the chief sat on the still unconscious body of Strongman, and they sped up onto the river embankment and away. Before they left, the chief ordered Wang, Fei, and Ma to make their own way to the station on foot, having perfect confidence in them just as Li did. Unlike Li, however, he did not care about their feelings (he had Strongman beaten senseless in front of their eyes and stuffed unceremoniously into the back of the van). In actual fact, the trio had been profoundly shocked at the scene. One moment, Strongman had been so full of life and sparks; the next moment, the poor man looked as dead as a dodo. Truthfully, they had never seen anything like it! As for young Li, he had learned something from this. You had to handle situations firmly and decisively. It was the only way to avoid unnecessary trouble and stop things getting out of hand. The police chief could tell exactly how it would play out. Wang, Ma, and Fei had been leery of going to the police station on their own, in case they were jumped on by Strongman’s cronies, but the chief reassured them, “I guarantee nothing will happen to you!” and indeed, even though suspicious-looking shadowy figures slipped by them (there was still activity around the wharf after one in the morning), no one attacked them on the way. In fact, the shadows ensured that they got to where they wanted to go. Officer Li had given them directions but they still had to ask the way a few times. Undoubtedly our trio were dealing with Strongman’s cronies, judging by their clothes. They even looked familiar.

So they decided to be assertive and marched up to the shadows even when they did not need directions. Wang Zhi doled out cigarettes, one after another (he used up a whole pack on their way). But the locals looked jittery and there was fear in their eyes. They were as terrified as Wang, Ma, and Fei had been, by the way the police chief had treated Strongman. Like them, they had seen Strongman full of vim and vigor, a most impressive man, and yet he had been felled, and stuffed into the police van just like that. For the moment, it did not cross their minds to avenge their friend, or to carry forward his unfinished business, even though his enemies (Wang, Ma, and Fei) were right in front of their eyes, asking the way and offering cigarettes. The station chief correctly foresaw all of this. It was the so-called shock effect, and it gave the trio a precious reprieve, during which they could wend their way to the station. To reinforce the effect, Wang, Ma, and Fei, aware that “police station” had an intimidating ring to it, made sure to phrase their question like so: “Where’s the police station? We’re going to the police station.” The very words police station completely disarmed Strongman’s cronies.

When Strongman regained consciousness and could not see the trio anywhere, he was frantic. He feared their disappearance meant that the matter had already been decided and he had been condemned out of hand. The truth of it was that Strongman was not worried about physical ill-treatment, or even a spell in prison; his chief concern was to establish the rights and the wrongs of this business. He couldn’t care less that the station chief had knocked him out with his truncheon, or that they had stuffed him into the police van, or that the chief had sat on his head (at least it was a chief’s buttock on his head). Just so long as he could prove that he was in the right, and that Officer Li was wrong. If it could be proved that Wang, Fei, and Ma were criminals, or had aided and abetted the criminal Bu, then all this would have been worth it. Not to be given an opportunity to prove his case was an insult to his, Strongman’s, intelligence and talents. In his contacts with the police hitherto, he had never managed to prove he was in the right, and now they were not even giving him the opportunity. There’s only one reason for that, he thought. It must be because this time he was in the right. And so he threw caution to the wind and began to yell: “Miscarriage of justice! Miscarriage of justice!” His desperate cries could be heard in all twenty-odd rooms in the police station. Strongman had his hands tied behind his back, and he was lying on his belly on the filthy concrete floor. In order to suck in enough air to make himself heard, he found himself raising his head and his heels off the floor in an arc. As each cry finished, his head and feet dropped to the floor again. “You fucking bit our station chief and pulled out Officer Li’s hair,” said one police officer. “What miscarriage of justice are you on about? Quit yelling or else!” In order to stop Strongman’s ear-piercing shouts, they dragged him out of the cell and into the yard behind the station, where the brick wall muffled his laments. To compensate, Strongman just got more abusive, screaming obscenities about Li’s and the station chief’s respective mothers. They were forced to whack him again. They used an electric prod this time and it didn’t knock Strongman out. In fact, it seemed to get him going, like being tickled under the armpits, in the crotch, or the soles of his feet, and he emitted howls of fury and pissed and shat himself. But at least he was no longer in the mood to curse the station chief’s or Li’s mother.

By the time Wang Zhi and his friends entered the police station, Strongman was in the backyard where two policemen were “sorting him out.” So, they didn’t see him. They heard his cries through the brick wall, but because the tone had changed dramatically, they had no idea it was him, or even that it was a human being. The screams made their hair stand on end.

The station was almost deserted. There were only a handful of policemen on duty. Having just come from the police post hut, which had been so crowded, they found this disconcerting. This place was full of rooms but empty of people. It was right at the far end of the township, rather out of the way, and very peaceful, apart from Strongman’s intermittent screams. The odd thing was that not a single one of Strongman’s cronies had come with him. Maybe it was too late at night and they had gone home to bed. Or perhaps it was just too far and they didn’t think it was worth making the journey just to see what was going on. Or they may have been scared away by Strongman’s frightful screams. Outside the police station it was deserted too. The hillside on which the police station sat was truly off the beaten track. True, it had electricity, but (unsurprisingly) the supply was uncertain and the light bulbs emitted a feeble, yellow light. In front of the gate, a huge guard-dog paced back and forth, its overgrown claws clicking on the cement path. The dog prowled around the trio, snuffling, then lay down a short distance away. It rested its enormous head on its front paws, but kept one eye open. It was fortunate for Strongman that the police had recently been equipped with electric prods, because the alternative would have been to set the dog on him. The dog had no work to do nowadays. It stayed awake at night just like it always had but seemed completely indifferent when Wang, Ma, and Fei arrived. Wang Zhi felt that, in that respect, the policemen and the dog were alike. They hardly seemed to notice the trio and, when they spoke, it was as if they were speaking to someone else. When you answered, they did not seem to be listening, even when you answered the precise question they had just asked you (that is, it was something they really wanted to hear). Wang was nonplussed. Perhaps, like the dog, the police had seen it all before; or perhaps they were just tired. They talked little to each other, but somehow seemed to be a tight team. It was very clear that the same tacit understanding existed between the men and the dog. They were a band of brothers, even though physically dissimilar. Officer Li’s fiery impatience and enthusiasm was an exception. He must surely have been a recent arrival, more recent even than the dog. A policeman came out and made Wang, Ma, and Fei hunker down and face the wall in the corridor. Then he discovered that they were witnesses, not suspects, and took no further notice of them. Having been shunted to one side, they quickly got bored. Normally, as educated folk, if they found themselves kicking their heels, they would look for something to read, for instance, a book, or the spines of the books on a shelf, or a newspaper or notices. But there was nothing of the kind in this station. All they had to look at were the stains on the walls. It was an old building, damp and leaky, with little natural light, so there were plenty of stains on the walls to examine; our trio were able to retain their self-respect—they could ignore the indifferent policemen and the dog, even though man and dog were much more interesting than wall stains. Wang, Ma, and Fei clasped their hands behind their backs and stared at the wall, lost in thought. After a while, Strongman’s screams died down and they heard the clattering of the policemen’s leather boots on the concrete, as well as the skittering of the police dog’s claws. They were invited into the office. The trio did their best to maintain their severe demeanor, though their hearts were banging wildly. They were called in one by one; the mysterious door opened, admitted them, then shut again. In the fractional instant when the door was open, the remaining two were given a fascinating glimpse of this new domain. Finally, they were getting their wish, and might even be allowed to go inside for a few minutes. It was all so much better than being ignored by police officers and sniffed at by a police dog in the corridor. They lined up outside on chairs, like patients waiting to see a doctor.

The office was fully equipped, with charts on the wall, documents on the table, a newspaper rack in the corner, and a brush pot full of pens, and even gadgets, such as a computer, a printer, and a fax machine. It was brightly lit too. The policemen seemed to have conjured up this place as if by magic, and they felt absolutely at home. This was the kind of place they were used to.

The procedure was that the police constable sat them on a chair and asked them questions, taking their statements down on paper. Then they were given their statements to read, and asked to put their thumbprint next to any corrections, to show their assent to it. (There must not be any suggestion of falsified evidence.) The black ink and the bright red thumbprint made an aesthetic improvement to an otherwise dull statement. The thumbprints looked like a chop, and there were one or two, on average, on every page. Once this was completed, the police constable sat back and admired his notes as if they were a work of calligraphy (after all, they were his handiwork). The words might have come from the mouths of the witness, but the notes were his alone; the aesthetics of the document came from the handwriting and had nothing to do with the content. Even though the thumbprints came from the witness, that just meant that he was taking the necessary responsibility for the facts.

As for the corrections that had been made on certain pages, and how many had been made, that was a police matter. All the witness had to do was press his thumbprint beside them. The police officer taking down Wang Zhi’s statement was very young,and fond of art and literature. He not only noted all the details of the evening’s events, he also demonstrated what a fascinating role art and calligraphy played in police work. Wang Zhi felt that the officer’s corrections were most appropriate, allowing him (Wang Zhi) to position his thumbprint in just the right place, creating a subtle visual balance throughout the text. The young constable was predisposed to admire educated folk like Wang Zhi and now adopted him as his best friend. He had had a couple of years’ experience in taking statements and was generally praised for his good handwriting, but people focused more on the content. This was the first time that someone had considered them (the notes) aesthetically. It took a university lecturer to plumb the mysterious depths of these mundane notes and see them as a work of art. Wang Zhi even suggested making corrections in places where no corrections were necessary, in order to place his red thumbprint there. As far as the assertion of the facts went, there really was nothing to change. It was the artistic and calligraphic nature of the document that needed improvement. The young constable accepted Wang Zhi’s critique and kept him in the office for a more extended conversation—starting with literature and art and progressing to life and love. Conversation invited confidences, and Wang Zhi learned several things: a teacher at the young officer’s police college had been at university with him; the young man had got on very well with this teacher, who actually talked of Wang Zhi to him. But just as they were getting deeper into this conversation, news came that Bu had finally been captured by Lanky and his mates and was being held in the police post. Officer Li had phoned to ask Wang Zhi to drop by. Bu had expressed a wish to say goodbye once more.

This was why: It was more than an hour until the next ferry left, and Bu, in the police duty post, was bored. He really wanted to head over to the police station to pass the time with Wang, Ma, and Fei, but he had refused adamantly to go to the police station with Lanky. That was the basis of his quarrel with Lanky. With Strongman it was different; it was the matter of what, or was not, in his bag. Lanky and his mates had long forgotten the reason for Bu’s argument with Strongman, but in their view, Strongman had gone to the police station so Bu had to go too. Officer Li had got Bu off the hook here, and excused him from going to the station. So in the circumstances, he could hardly now decide to go under his own volition, could he? The fact remained: he was bored to death. Lanky’s gang had almost all dispersed, leaving just one or two pacing up and down outside the door of the police post. He and Li had little to talk about, either. Bu knew that it would take Wang, Fei, and Ma at least half an hour to get here, but he still would have liked at least one of them to come and while away the remaining time. Wang Zhi was free to go, and the young constable even lent him a bicycle and offered to accompany him. This Wang Zhi would not countenance, so the young man pointed him in the right direction, assured Wang that there would be no possible danger, then went back inside the police station.

When Wang Zhi arrived at the police post, it was to see Bu pacing back and forth inside, waving his arms. Officer Li sat on the camp bed in his underclothes while a grey-haired woman was leaning in close to the light and sewing the buttons back on Li’s uniform. The pair of them looked like mother and son. Bu introduced the woman to Wang as Auntie Xu. If it hadn’t been for Auntie Xu’s protection he would have fallen into the hands of Lanky and his bullies, he told Wang. Bu praised her quick wits and courage in hiding him under the mosquito net in the ticket office, and Wang offered her his sincere appreciation for saving his friend. The woman raised her head from her sewing, her cheeks went pink, and smiled shyly.

There was not much time before the ferry left and Bu pulled Wang Zhi to the door and whispered something in his ear. “Where are your bags?” Wang asked Bu, who said that they were already on the boat—Auntie Xu had got someone to load them on first. Prior to that, Lanky and his mates had treated them as the spoils of war and had brought them to the police post, where Officer Li had given them a cursory examination. “Did he find anything?” asked Wang anxiously. “Of course not.” Bu told Wang what had happened next: Lanky and his mates insisted the bags should be given a second search in the presence of everyone. They took out every item, one by one, and laid them on the table, giving each one a thorough inspection. Li made a point of searching with great care: He had already searched once, so he knew there was nothing there, but he was doing it to keep Lanky and his mates quiet. It brought Bu out in a fearful sweat. “And did they find anything the second time?” asked Wang. “No.” “Not in the bag then…” “Then where can it be?” “I don’t understand.” “Neither do I. It was right in front of their eyes, and Li and Lanky handled it. Li passed it to Lanky and Lanky put it on the table, and they still didn’t spot it.” Bu told Wang Zhi that there had in fact been three inspections. As far as Lanky and his mates were concerned, there was no point hanging around after that. Lanky wanted Bu to go to the police station, but Li reminded them that the only thing at issue was ascertaining whether there was anything in Bu’s bag. Strongman had tangled with Wang, Ma, and Fei for this very reason, and settling the question was the only way to clear Strongman’s name. If there was nothing in Bu’s bag, making him go to the police station could actually count against Strongman. If, on the other hand, there were prohibited goods in Bu’s bag, Li would not give his permission even if Lanky wanted to let it drop (he was, after all, responsible for protecting public safety). Lanky and his mates had not been there when Strongman was beaten up at the police station, because they had been at the wharf, having a slanging match with Auntie Xu in the ticket office. They had not seen Strongman getting beaten with the electric prod, so they had no idea how serious things were. So Li took great pains to explain it to them now: Repeatedly examining Bu’s bag served not only to prove that he, Officer Li, was doing his job correctly but also showed up Lanky and the others as mischief-makers. Rifling through Bu’s bags had been a way to alleviate their boredom, giving them a chance to appreciate the quality of his possessions. However, Bu was terrified as he watched them pass the thing from hand to hand, saw it gleam in the light, saw them put it back in the bag, then take it out again. To all outward appearances, it was just a large manila envelope, open on one side, and containing a few sheets of paper. Both Li and Lanky had checked inside. The sheets of paper were photocopies, so they looked more like documents than a book. And they were sure they were looking for a book, no matter how tatty, so no one’s suspicions were aroused. The thing was passed from hand to hand, not spending long with anyone, but it was long enough to make Bu feel like he couldn’t breathe. Could his heart stand it, as they checked his three bags over and over? The inspectors had an even greater sense of boredom, but it was such risk-filled boredom! It might drive them to nit-pick more, to subject the documents to unwonted scrutiny, to take them out of the envelope and read them. Bu dared not follow that train of thought. He raised vigorous objections with Officer Li.

In actual fact, by this time, Lanky’s conscience was beginning to prick him, and Li was worried about offending Bu, so once the fourth inspection was completed, there were no more. But Bu could not relax. He was worried they might change their minds, or they might get bored again. So he took advantage of Li and Lanky’s inattention for a moment and entrusted Auntie Xu with getting someone to load his three bags onto the ferry.

Bu stood at the door of the duty post and told Wang Zhi the story of the three bags, then he followed his bags and boarded the ferry himself.

Once Bu was on board, Wang Zhi was hugely relieved. As he heard the blast from the ferry, he thought, Bu and his three bags are offshore now, along with that thing in the bag. He biked back to the police station. It was a familiar road by now, even in the dark. He had been to the dock to see off a friend (Bu), the friend had gone, and he had stayed behind. Far in the distance, he could see the police-station lights on, as if they were his own home. The bicycle clattered over the potholes in the road, and, as he got nearer, he caught a low growl, and then a whiff of something pungent, and the police guard dog leaped on him. He jumped off the bicycle and tried to run away. But there was no need. The police dog was just welcoming him back—in the short time, it had accepted him as a member of the family, bouncing around him, uttering little barks and wagging its tail furiously. Then the young constable who had lent his bike came out and gave a shout of welcome. He took his bike back and leaned it against the wall. Then he put his arm around Wang’s shoulders and, in this manner, led him into the station. Wang Zhi was quite moved. The constable had become like a brother to him.

By now, Ma Ning and Fei Jun had finished making their statements and were sitting on a bench in the corridor, waiting for Wang Zhi. On another chair, about three or four meters away, sat Strongman. It looked like he had finished his statement too and was waiting to be processed. Unlike our trio, his arms were bent behind his back and he was handcuffed to the back of the chair. He had lost all his former spark and sat slumped and so silent that our trio wondered if he were still alive. Obviously, it was only because he had been reduced to this state that the officer had managed to take his statement. At all events, it had gone smoothly and now he sat there, his mop of hair hanging down over his face, as if overcome with a fit of shyness. When he shifted slightly, no one noticed. It was his relentless silence that made them look askance at him. He was not the silent, stolid type by nature, and were it not for the fact that he had been grievously injured, he would not have been able to put with even half an hour of silence. He shifted again. No response from Wang, Ma, and Fei. So he shifted again and cleared his throat too. There was no one near enough to notice except for the three of them, and they had been his enemies, which was certainly not to Strongman’s advantage. However, he had precious little choice. Now, they were his neighbors, so he had to get their attention. Playing dead was no way to do that, and, in any case, he much preferred hobnobbing with heroes. As the old saying puts it so well: No discord, no concord. After trying vainly to attract their attention, he began to talk to himself. His fidgeting and muttering were in part, but not entirely, down to the fact that he was in pain from his injuries. He moaned and groaned and cried pathetically: “Mom! Dad! Help!” Finally, he tried the direct approach. Ma Ning was smoking, and Strongman asked: “Gimme a ciggie?” Ma Ning lit one for him and put it between his lips. Strongman chomped on it with his blackened teeth and sucked fiercely, so that his whole abdomen and chest rose and fell as if some great wave had passed over. The ciggie got steadily shorter as he sucked, and the haze of smoke reduced his eyes to thin slits. His lips and front teeth had to do everything because his hands were cuffed to the chair. Nonetheless, the cigarette was crucial in restoring Strongman’s confidence and strength. He began to feel that he was bosom buddies with Wang, Fei, and Ma—after all, he had asked for it but Ma had given it to him. Were they not all in the same boat, even though they had come in for different reasons? They were all stuck here (in the police station corridor), had had their statements taken, had nothing to do for the moment but were not free to leave. Strongman, in his chair, heaved a heavy sigh: “I did a bad thing but I had good intentions!” he said. He put on a big show of distress and sneaked a look at Wang, Ma, and Fei, anxious to elicit their sympathy. It was almost as if he was begging their pardon. Wang and Fei were unresponsive; they affected an air of utter scorn and paid no attention to Strongman’s laments, just carried on talking loudly, occasionally casting a glance in his direction, as if he were some strange and bizarre creature that happened to cross their field of vision. They were forced to share this space with Strongman, but only temporarily and incidentally. Fortunately, they were not forced to sit close to him. They made sure to sit right at the other end of the bench from him, leaving plenty of empty space at the other end of the bench. They frequently got to their feet to pace back and forth, just to show that they were quite independent of the seats. They stood, and then sat. They adopted a number of different poses while seated, all of the poses that Strongman was unable to adopt, because he had become indissolubly one with his chair.

Ma Ning’s behavior was a bit different. He calmly moved nearer to Strongman and looked inquiringly into his eyes. Then he lit a cigarette and passed it to him, nodding attentively at Strongman’s words. In all seriousness (ignoring Wang and Fei, who were sniggering), he told him: “You should study a bit of law!” Then he repeated himself earnestly: “You should study law!” Strongman’s eyes had begun to brighten, but now they dulled again: “I’m illiterate,” he said helplessly.

“If you’re illiterate then get people to explain it to you,” said Ma Ning. “Illiterate or not, you should study a bit of law. The law doesn’t exist only for literate people. Everyone should study law and keep the law. Otherwise, you’ll get into trouble and it’ll be too late for regrets!”

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