After a life

For twenty-eight years, Mr and Mrs Su have kept their daughter hidden away
April 16, 2005

Mr and Mrs Su are finishing their breakfast when the telephone rings. Neither moves to pick it up at first. Not many people know their number; fewer use it. Their son Jian, now in his second year at college, calls them once a month to report his wellbeing. He spends most of his holidays with his friends' families, not offering even the most superficial excuses. Mr and Mrs Su do not have the heart to complain or to remind Jian of their wish to see him more often. Their two-bedroom flat, small and cramped as it is, is filled with Beibei's screaming when she is not napping, and the foul smell when she dirties the sheets. Jian has grown up sleeping in a cot in the foyer and hiding from his friends the existence of an elder sister born with severe mental retardation. Mr and Mrs Su sensed their son's elation when he finally moved into the college dormitory. They have held on to the secret wish that after Beibei dies—she is not destined for longevity, after all—they will reclaim their lost son, though neither says anything to the other, both ashamed by the mere thought of the wish.

The ringing stops for a short moment and starts again. Mr Su walks to the telephone and puts a hand on the receiver. "Do you want to take it?" he asks his wife.

"So early, it must be Mr Fong," Mrs Su says.

"Mr Fong is a man of courtesy. He won't disturb other people's breakfast," Mr Su says. Still, he picks up the receiver, and his expression relaxes. "Ah, yes, Mrs Fong. My wife, she is right here," he says.

Mrs Su does not take the call immediately. She goes into Beibei's bedroom and checks on her, even though it is not time for her to wake up yet. Mrs Su strokes the hair on Beibei's forehead, light brown and baby soft. Beibei is twenty-eight and so large it requires both her parents to turn her over to be washed; she screams for hours when she is awake; but for a mother, it takes just a wisp of hair to forget all the imperfections.

When Mrs Su returns to the living room, her husband is still holding the receiver for her, one hand covering the mouthpiece. "She's in a bad mood," he whispers.

Mrs Su sighs. "Yes, Mrs Fong, how are you today?"

"As bad as can be. My legs are killing me. Listen, my husband just left. He said he was meeting your husband for breakfast and they were going to the stock brokerage afterwards. Tell me it was a lie."

Mrs Su watches her husband go into Beibei's bedroom. He sits with Beibei often; she does, too, though never at the same time with him. "My husband is putting on his jacket, so he must be going out to meet Mr Fong now," Mrs Su says. "Do you want me to check with him?"

"Ask him," Mrs Fong says.

Mrs Su walks to Beibei's room and stops at the door. Her husband is sitting on the chair by the bed, his eyes closed for a quick rest. It is eight o'clock, still early, but for an ageing man, morning, like everything else, means less than it used to. Mrs Su goes back to the telephone and says, "Mrs Fong? Yes, my husband is meeting your husband for breakfast."

"Are you sure? Do me a favour. Follow him and see if he's lying to you. You can never trust men."

Mrs Su hesitates, and says, "But I'm busy."

"What are you busy with? Listen, my legs are hurting me. I would've supervised him myself otherwise."

"I don't think it looks good for husbands to be followed around," Mrs Su says.

"If your husband goes out every morning and comes home with another woman's scent, why should you care about what looks good or bad?"

It is not her husband who is having an affair, Mrs Su retorts in her mind, but she doesn't want to point out the illogic. Her husband is indeed often used as a cover for Mr Fong's affair and Mrs Su feels guilty about Mrs Fong. "Mrs Fong, I would help on another day, but today is bad."

"Whatever you say."

"I'm sorry," Mrs Su says.

Mrs Fong complains for another minute about the untrustworthiness of husbands and friends in general, and then hangs up. Mrs Su knocks on the door of Beibei's room and her husband jerks awake, quickly wiping the corner of his mouth. "Mrs Fong wanted to know if you were meeting Mr Fong," she says.

"Tell her yes."

"I did."

Mr Su nods and tucks the blanket tight beneath Beibei's soft, shapeless chin. It bothers Mrs Su when her husband touches Beibei, though it is ridiculous of her. Being jealous of a daughter who understands nothing and a husband who loves the daughter despite that—she'll become a crazier woman than Mrs Fong if she doesn't watch out, Mrs Su thinks. Yet seeing her husband smooth Beibei's hair or rub her cheeks upsets Mrs Su. She goes back to the kitchen and washes the dishes while her husband gets ready to leave. When he says goodbye, she answers politely without turning to look at him.

At eight thirty Mr Su leaves the apartment, right on time for the half-hour walk to the stock brokerage. Most of the time he is there only to study the market; sometimes he buys and sells, but only with extraordinary prudence, as the money in his account does not belong to him. Mr Fong has offered the ten thousand yuan as a loan, and has made it clear many times that he is not in any urgent need of the money. It is not a big sum at all for Mr Fong, a retired senior officer from a military factory, but Mr Su believes that for each drop of water one receives, one has to repay with a well. The market and the economy haven't helped him much in returning Mr Fong's generosity. Mr Su, however, is not discouraged. A retired mathematics teacher aged sixty-five, Mr Su believes in exercising one's body and mind—both provided by his daily trip to the stock brokerage—and being patient.

Mr Su met Mr Fong a year ago at the stock brokerage where Mr Su had been a regular for some time. Mr Fong, a year older than Mr Su, took a seat by him, and conversation started between the two men. He was there out of curiosity, Mr Fong said; he asked Mr Su if indeed the stock system would work for the country, and if that was the case, how Marxist political economics could be adapted for this new capitalist situation. Mr Fong's question, obsolete and naive as it was, moved Mr Su. With almost everyone in the country going crazy about money, it was rare to meet someone who was nostalgic about the old but also earnest in his effort to understand the new. "You are on the wrong floor to ask that question," Mr Su replied. "The people who know about the economy are in the VIP lounges upstairs."

The stock brokerage, like most similar firms in Beijing, rented space from a bankrupted, state-run factory. The one Mr Su visited used to manufacture televisions, a profitable factory until it lost in a price war to a monopolising corporation. The laid-off workers were among those who now frequented the ground floor of the brokerage, opening accounts with their limited means and hoping for luck. Others on the floor were retirees, men and women of Mr Su's age who dreamed of making their money grow, instead of letting it die in the banks, which offered very low interest rates.

"What are these people doing here if they don't matter to the economy?" Mr Fong asked.

"Thousands of grains of sand make a tower," Mr Su said. "Their investments help a lot of factories run."

"But will they make money from the stock market?"

Mr Su shook his head. He lowered his voice and said, "Most of them don't. Look at that woman there on the first row, the one with the hairnet. She buys and sells according to what the newspapers say. She'll never make money that way. And there, the old man—he's eighty-two and healthy, but not a wise investor."

Mr Fong looked at the different people Mr Su pointed out, every one an example of bad investing. "And you, are you making money?" Mr Fong asked.

"I'm the worst of all," Mr Su said with a smile. "I don't even have money to get started." Mr Su had been observing the market for quite some time. With a modest and imagined fund, he had practised trading and had dutifully written down all the transactions in a notebook; he had bought secondhand books on trading and developed his own theories. His prospects of earning money from the market were not bleak at all, he concluded after a year. His pension, however, was small. With a son at college, and a wife and a daughter dependent on him, he did not have the courage to risk a penny on his personal hobby.

Mr Fong and Mr Su became friends. They sat at teahouses or restaurants, exchanging opinions about the world. They were eager to back up each other's views, and at the first sign of disagreement, they changed topics. It surprised Mr Su that he would make a friend at his age. He had been a lonely man all his life, and most people he knew were mere acquaintances. But perhaps this was what made old age a second childhood—friendship could come out of companionship, with less self-interest, fewer social judgements.

After a month or so, Mr Fong confessed to Mr Su that he was in a painful situation. Mr Su poured a cup of rice wine for Mr Fong, waiting for him to continue.

"I fell in love with this woman I met at a street dance party," Mr Fong said.

Mr Su nodded. Mr Fong had told him about attending a class to learn ballroom dancing, and had informed him of the advantages: good exercise, a chance to meet people, and an aesthetic experience. Mr Su had thought of teasing Mr Fong about his being eroded by western influences, but seeing Mr Fong's sincerity, Mr Su had given up the idea.

"She is a younger woman," Mr Fong said.

"How much younger?" Mr Su asked.

"In her early forties," Mr Fong said.

"Don't feel bothered by all the prejudices," Mr Su said. "Age should not be a barrier to happiness."

"But it's not quite possible."

"Why, is she married?"

"Divorced," Mr Fong said. "But think about it. She's my daughter's age."

Mr Su looked Mr Fong up and down. A soldier all his life, Mr Fong was in good shape; except for the balding head, he looked younger than his age. "Put on a wig and people will think you are fifty," Mr Su said.

"Don't make fun of me, old Su," Mr Fong said. "It's a fruitless love, I know."

"Chairman Mao said one could achieve anything as long as one dares to imagine it."

Mr Fong shook his head and sipped his wine sullenly. Mr Su felt he was back to his teenage years, being consulted by and consulting his best friend about girls. "You know something," he said. "My wife and I are first cousins. Everybody opposed the marriage, but we got married anyway. You just do it."

"That's quite a courageous thing," Mr Fong said. "I've always had the feeling you're not an ordinary guy. You must introduce me to your wife. Why don't I visit you tomorrow? I need to pay respect to her."

Mr Su felt a surge of panic. He had not invited a guest to his flat for decades. "Please don't bother yourself," he said finally. "A wife is just the same old woman after a lifelong marriage, no?" It was a bad joke, and he regretted it right away.

Mr Fong sighed. "You've got it right, old Su. But the thing is, a wife is a wife and you can't ditch her like a worn shirt after a life."

It was the first time Mr Fong had mentioned a wife. Mr Su had thought Mr Fong a widower, the way he talked only about his children and their families. "You mean, your wife's well and…" Mr Su thought carefully and said, "still lives with you?"

"She's in prison," Mr Fong said and sighed again. He went on to tell the story of his wife. She had been the party secretary of an import-export branch for the agriculture department and, naturally, there had been money coming from subdivisions and companies that needed her approval on paperwork. The usual transactions, Mr Fong explained, but someone told on her. She received a disciplinary reprimand from the party and was retired. "Fair enough, no? She's never harmed a soul in her life," Mr Fong said. But unfortunately, right at the time of her retirement, the president issued an order that corrupted officials who had taken more than a hundred and seventy thousand yuan were to be heavily punished. "A hundred and seventy thousand is nothing compared to what he's taken!" Mr Fong hit the table with a fist. In a lower voice, he said, "Believe me, old Su, only the smaller fish pay. The big ones—they just get fatter."

Mr Su nodded. A hundred and seventy thousand yuan was more than he could imagine, but Mr Fong must be right that it was not a horrific crime. "So she had a case with that much money?"

"It was just over the limit, and she got a sentence of seven years."

"Seven years!" Mr Su said. "How awful and unfair."

Mr Fong shook his head. "In short, old Su, how can I abandon her now?"

"No," Mr Su said. "That's not right."

They were silent for a moment, and both drank their wine over the dilemma. After a while, Mr Fong said, "I was thinking: before my wife comes home, we—the woman I love, and I—maybe we can have a temporary family. No contract, no obligation. Better than those, you know, one night of something?"

"One night stands," Mr Su blurted out, and then was embarrassed to have shown familiarity with such improper modern vocabularies. He had learned the term from tabloids the women brought to the brokerage; he had even paid attention to those tales, though he would never admit it.

"Yes. I thought ours could be better than that. A dew-marriage before the sunrise."

"What will happen when your wife comes back?"

"Seven years is a long time," Mr Fong said. "Who knows what will become of me in seven years? I may be resting with Marx and Engels in heaven then."

"Don't say that, Mr Fong," Mr Su said, saddened by the thought of an eventual parting.

"You're a good friend, old Su. Thank you for listening to me. All our old friends left us after my wife's sentence, as if our bad luck would contaminate them." Then, out of the blue, Mr Fong came up with the suggestion of loaning Mr Su some money for investing.

"Definitely not!" Mr Su said. "I'm your friend, and not because of your money."

"Ah, how can you think of it that way?" Mr Fong said. "Let's look at it this way: it is a good experiment for an old Marxist like me. If you make a profit, great; if not, good for my belief, no?"

Mr Su thought Mr Fong was drunk, but after a few days, Mr Fong mentioned the loan again, and Mr Su found it hard to reject the offer.

Mrs fong calls again two hours later. "I have a great idea," she says when Mrs Su picks up the phone. "I'll hire a private detective to find out whom my husband is seeing."

"Private detective?"

"Why? You think I can't find the woman? Let me be honest with you—I don't trust that husband of yours. I think he lies to you about my husband's whereabouts."

Mrs Su freezes. She didn't know private detectives were available. It sounds foreign and dangerous. She wonders if they could do some harm to her husband, his being Mr Fong's accomplice in the affair. "Can you find a reliable person for that?"

"People will do anything if you have the money," Mrs Fong says. "If your husband is spending every day away from home, wouldn't you be suspicious? Don't you think it's possible that they are both having affairs, and are covering up for each other?"

"No, it's impossible."

"How can you be so sure? I'll hire a detective for both of us if you like."

"Ah, please no," Mrs Su says.

"You don't have to pay."

"No, it's not the money, really," Mrs Su says, her legs weakened by a sudden fear. A private detective might find out about Beibei, the secret they have kept for almost three decades. "I trust my husband," she says. "He's very good to me."

"Fine," Mrs Fong says. "I'll spare you the truth."

Mrs Su has never met Mrs Fong in person, who was recently released from prison because of health problems after serving a year of her sentence. A few days into her parole, she called Su's number—it being the only unfamiliar one in Mr Fong's list of contacts—and grilled Mrs Su about her relationship with Mr Fong. Mrs Su tried her best to convince Mrs Fong that she had nothing to do with Mr Fong, nor was there a younger suspect in her household. Their only child was a son, Mrs Su lied. Since then, Mrs Fong has made Mrs Su a confidante, calling her several times a day. Life must be hard for Mrs Fong now, with a criminal record, all friends turning their backs on her, and a husband in love with a younger woman. Mrs Su was not particularly sympathetic with Mrs Fong when she first learned the sentence—one hundred and seventy thousand yuan was an astronomical number to her—but now she does not have the heart to refuse Mrs Fong's friendship. Her husband is for sure having a secret affair, Mrs Fong confesses to Mrs Su over the phone. He has developed some alarming habits, flossing his teeth after every meal, doing sit-ups at night, rubbing hair-growing ointment on his head. "As if he has another forty years to live," Mrs Fong says. He goes out and meets Mr Su every day, but what's a good reason for two men to see each other so often?

Stock market, Mrs Su explains unconvincingly. Mrs Fong's phone calls exhaust her, but sometimes, after a quiet morning, she feels anxious for the phone to ring.

Mrs Su has lived most of her married life within the apartment walls, caring for her children and waiting for them to leave in one way or another. Beyond everyday greetings, Mrs Su does not talk much with the neighbours when she goes out for groceries. When Mr and Mrs Su first moved in, the neighbours tried to prise her mouth open with questions about the source of all the noises from the apartment. Mrs Su refused to satisfy their curiosity and, in response, they were enraged by the denial of their right to know Su's secret. Once, when Jian was four or five, a few women trapped him in the building entrance and grilled him for answers; later Mrs Su found him on the stairs in tears, his lips tightly shut.

Mrs Su walks to Beibei's bedroom door, which she had shut tightly so that Mrs Fong would not hear Beibei. She listens for a moment to Beibei's screaming before she enters the room. Beibei is agitated today, the noises she makes shriller and more impatient. Mrs Su sits by the bed and strokes Beibei's eyebrows; it fails to sooth her into her usual whimpering self. Mrs Su tries to feed Beibei a few spoonfuls of gruel, but she sputters it all out into Mrs Su's face.

Mrs Su gets up for a towel to clean them both and all of a sudden feels frightened by the thought of a private detective. She imagines a ghostlike man trailing Mr Fong and recording his daily activities. Would the detective also investigate her own husband if Mrs Fong, out of curiosity or boredom, were to spend a little more money to find out other people's secrets? Mrs Su looks around the bedroom, and wonders if a private detective, despite the window and the curtains that are kept closed day and night, would be able to see Beibei through a crack in the wall. Mrs Su studies Beibei and imagines how she would look to a stranger: a mountain of flesh that has never seen the sunshine, white like porcelain. Age has left no mark on Beibei's body and face; she is still the newborn, soft and tender, wrapped in an oversized pink robe.

Beibei screeches and the flesh on her cheeks trembles. Mrs Su cups Beibei's plump hand in her own, and sings in a whisper. "The little mouse climbs onto the counter. The little mouse drinks the cooking oil. The little mouse gets too full to move. Meow, meow, the cat is coming and the little mouse gets caught."

Beibei was conceived against the warning of all the relatives who had not agreed with the marriage between cousins in the first place. At Beibei's birth, the doctors said she would probably die before ten; it would be a miracle if she lived to twenty. They suggested the couple give up the newborn as a specimen for the medical college. She was no use for any other purpose. Mr and Mrs Su shuddered at the image of their baby soaked in a jar of formaldehyde, and never brought Beibei back to the hospital after the mother and baby were discharged. Being in love, the couple were undaunted by the calamity. They moved to a different district, away from their families and old neighbours, he changing his job, she giving up work to care for Beibei. They did not invite guests to their home; after a while, they no longer had friends. They applauded when Beibei started making sounds to express her need for comfort and company; they watched her grow into a bigger version of herself. It was a hard life, but their love of each other, and of the daughter, made it the perfect life Mrs Su had dreamed of since she had been twelve and a half, when her cousin, a year older and already a lanky young man, had handed her a book of poems as a present.

The young cousin has become the stooping husband. The perfect life has turned out less so. The year Beibei reached ten—a miracle worth celebrating—her husband brought up the idea of a second baby. Why? she asked, and he talked about a healthier marriage, a more complete family. She did not understand his reasoning, and she knew, even when Jian was growing in her belly, that they would get a good baby but it would do nothing to save them from what had been destroyed. They had built a world around Beibei, but her husband decided to turn away from it in search of a family more like other people's. Mrs Su found it hard to understand, but wasn't there an old saying about men always being interested in changing, and women in preservation? A woman accepted anything from life and made the best of it; a man bargained for the better but also the less perfect.

Mrs Su sighs, and looks at Beibei's shapeless features. So offensive she must be to other people's eyes that Mrs Su wishes she could shrink Beibei back to the size that she once carried in her arms; she wishes she could sneak Beibei into the next world without attracting anybody's attention. Beibei screams louder, white foam dripping from the corner of her mouth. Mrs Su cleans her with a towel, and for a moment, when her hand stops over Beibei's mouth and muffles the cry, Mrs Su feels a strong desire to keep the hand there. Three minutes longer and Beibei could be spared all the struggles and humiliations death has in store for every living creature, Mrs Su thinks, but at the first sign of blushing in Beibei's pale face, she removes the towel. Beibei breathes heavily. It amazes and saddens Mrs Su that Beibei's life is so obstinate that it has outlived the love that once made it.

With one finger, Mr Su types in his password—a combination of Beibei's and Jian's birthday—at a terminal booth. He is still clumsy in his operation of the computer, but people on the floor, ageing and slow as most of them are, remain patient with each other. The software dutifully produces graphs and numbers, but Mr Su finds it hard to concentrate today. After a while, he quits to make room for a woman waiting for a booth. He goes back to the seating area and looks for a good chair to take a rest. The brokerage, during the recent economic downturn, has slacked in maintenance, and a lot of chairs are missing their orange plastic seats. Mr Su finally finds a good one among homemade cotton cushions and sits down by a group of old housewives. The women, in their late fifties or early sixties, are the happiest and chattiest people on the floor. Most of them have money locked into stocks that they have no choice but to keep for now, and perhaps forever; the only reason for them to come every day is for companionship. They talk about their children and grandchildren, unbearable in-laws, soap operas from the night before, stories from tabloids that must be discussed and analysed at length.

Mr Su watches the rolling numbers on the big screen, mostly in hopeless green. The PA is tuned into a financial radio station but the host's analysis is drowned by the women's stories. Most of the time, Mr Su finds them annoyingly noisy, but today he feels affection towards the women. His wife, quiet and pensive, will never become one of these gossipy old hens, but he wishes, for a moment, that one of them were his wife, cheered up by the most mundane matters.

After taking notes of the numbers concerning him, Mr Su sighs. Despite all the research he had done, his investment seems to doing no better than the old women's. Life goes wrong for the same reason that people miscalculate. Husband and wife promise each other a lifelong love that turns out shorter than a life; people buy stocks with good calculations, but they do not take into consideration life's own preference for improbability. He fell in love with his wife at thirteen and she had loved him back. What were the odds for first lovers to end up in a family? Against both families' wills, they married, and against everybody's warning, they decided to have a baby. Mr Su, younger and more arrogant then, calculated and concluded that the odds of having a problematic baby were very low, so low that fate was almost on their side. Almost, but not quite, and as a mean joke, Beibei was born with major problems in her brain and spinal cord. It would not have been much of a misfortune except that his wife started to hide herself and the baby from the world; Beibei must have reminded his wife every day that their marriage was a less than legitimate one. There is nothing to be ashamed about, Mr Su thought of telling her, but he did not have the heart. It was he who suggested another baby. To give them a second chance, he thought, to save his wife from the unnecessary shame she had insisted on living with. Secretly, he also wished to challenge fate again. The odds of having another calamity were low, very low, he tried to convince his wife. And the new baby's birth proved his calculation right—Jian was born healthy, and he grew into a very handsome and bright boy, as if the parents were being rewarded doubly for what had been taken away the first time. Who would have thought that such a success, instead of making their marriage a happier one, should turn his wife away from him? How arrogant he had been to make the same mistake a second time, thinking he could outsmart life. What had survived the birth of Beibei did not survive Jian's birth, as if his wife could share misfortune with him but not happiness. For twenty years, they have avoided arguments; they have been loving parents, dutiful spouses; but something that had made them crazy for each other as young cousins has abandoned them.

A finger taps Mr Su's shoulder. He opens his eyes, and realises that he had fallen asleep.

"You were snoring," a woman says with a smile.

Mr Su apologises. The woman nods and returns to the conversation with her companions. Mr Su looks at the clock on the screen, too early for lunch, but he brings out a bag of instant noodles and a mug from his bag anyway, soaking the noodles with the boiling water from the drinking stand. The noodles soften and swell. Mr Su takes a sip of the soup and shakes his head. He thinks of going home and talking to his wife, asking her a few questions he has never summoned the courage to ask, but then decides that things unsaid had better remain so; life is not much different from the stock market—you invest in a stock and you stick, and are stuck, to the choice, despite all the other possibilities.

At noon, the restaurant commissioned by the stock brokerage delivers the lunchboxes to the VIP lounges, and the traders on the floor heat lunches in the microwave or make instant noodles. Mr Su, who is always cheered up by the mixed smells of leftovers from other dinner tables, enters a terminal booth in a hopeful mood. Some day, he thinks, when his wife is freed, he'll ask her to accompany him to the stock brokerage. He wants her to see other people's lives, full of meaningless but happy trivialities.

Mr Su leaves the brokerage at five o'clock. Outside the building, he sees Mr Fong, sitting on the kerb and looking up at him like a sad, deserted child.

"Mr Fong," Mr Su says. "Are you all right? Why didn't you come in and find me?"

Mr Fong suggests they go for a drink, and then holds out a hand and lets Mr Su pull him to his feet. They find a small roadside diner, and Mr Fong orders a few cold plates and a bottle of strong yam wine. "Don't you sometimes wish a marriage doesn't go on as long as our lives last?" he says over the drink.

"Is there anything wrong?" Mr Su asks.

"Nothing's been right with my wife since her release," Mr Fong says.

"Will you divorce her?"

Mr Fong downs a cup of wine. "I wish I could," he says and starts to sob. "I wish I didn't love her at all so I could just pack up and leave."

By the late afternoon Mrs Su is convinced that Beibei is having problems. Her eyes, usually clear and empty, glisten with a strange light as if she is conscious of her pain. Mrs Su tries in vain to calm her down, and when all the other ways have failed, she takes out the bottle of sleeping pills. She puts two pills into a small porcelain mortar, and then, after a moment of hesitation, adds two more. Over the years she has fed the syrup with the pill powders to Beibei so that the family can have undisturbed sleep overnight.

Calmed by the syrup, Beibei stops screaming for a short moment, and then starts again. Mrs Su strokes Beibei's forehead and waits for the medicine to take over her limited consciousness. When the telephone rings, Mrs Su does not move. Later, when it rings for the fifth time, she checks Beibei's eyes, half closed in drowsiness, and then closes the bedroom door before picking up the receiver.

"Why didn't you answer the phone? Are you tired of me, too?" Mrs Fong says.

Mrs Su tries to find excuses, but Mrs Fong, uninterested in any of them, cuts her off. "I know who the woman is now."

"How much did it cost you to find out?"

"Zero. Listen. My husband—shameless old man—he confessed himself."

Mrs Su feels relief. "So the worst is over, Mrs Fong."

"Over? Not at all. Guess what he said to me this afternoon? He asked me if we could all three of us live together in peace. He said it as if he was thinking on my behalf. 'We have plenty of rooms. It doesn't hurt to give her a room and a bed. She is a good woman, she'll take good care of us both.' Taking care of his thing, that's for sure."

Mrs Su blushes. "Does she want to live with you?"

"Guess what? She's been laid off. Ha ha, not a surprise, right? Of course she wants to move in. Free meals. Free bed. Free man. What could be better? Maybe she has even set her eyes on our inheritance. Imagine what my husband suggested? He said I should think of her as a daughter. He said she lost her father at five and did not have a man who was good to her until she met him. So I said, is she looking for a husband or a stepfather? She's honey-mouthing him. But the blind man! He even begged me to feel for her pain. Why didn't he ask her to feel for me?"

Something hits the door with a heavy thump, and the door swings open. Mrs Su turns and sees an old man leaning onto the door, supported by her husband. "Mr Fong's drunk," her husband whispers to her.

"Are you there?" Mrs Fong says.

"Ah, yes, Mrs Fong, but something's come up and I have to go."

"Not yet. I haven't finished the story."

Mrs Su watches the two men stumble into the bathroom. After a while, there come the sounds of vomiting and the running of tap water, her husband's low comforting words, Mr Fong's weeping.

"So I said, 'Over my dead body,' and he cried and begged and said all these ridiculous things about opening one's mind to a new kind of marriage. Many households have two women and one man living in peace now, he said. It's the marriage revolution. Revolution? I said. It's retrogression. You think yourself a good Marxist, but Marx didn't teach you bigamy. Chairman Mao didn't tell you to have a concubine."

Mr Su helps Mr Fong to lie down on the couch and he closes his eyes. Mrs Su watches the old man's tear-smeared face twitch in pain. Soon Mrs Fong's angry words blend with Mr Fong's snoring.

Seeing Mr Fong asleep, Mr Su stands up and walks into Beibei's room. One moment later, he comes out and looks at Mrs Su with a sad and calm expression that makes her heart tremble. She lets go the receiver with Mrs Fong's blabbering, and walks to Beibei's bedroom. There she finds Beibei at rest, undisturbed, the signs of pain gone from her face, porcelain-white but with a bluish hue now. Mrs Su kneels by the bed and holds Beibei's hand, still plump and soft, in her own. Her husband comes close and strokes her hair, grey and thin now, but his touch, gentle and timid, is the same one from a life ago, when they were children playing in their grandparents' garden, where the pomegranate blossoms, fire-coloured and shaped like bells, kept the bees busy and happy.