A Beijing Minute
By Royston Tester
Sun Mee was sure. Nothing, not even ripe long-distance travellers, could counter the stench of Yuanjin's feet.
Or rather, foot.
The left. Socked and shoed as it inevitably was (Yuanjin would never be seen in sandals) on this hot August in Beijing. A cotton-mouth spell that turned all nature rank. As glistening trains hastened away, like eels, to Moscow, Pyongyang, Ulan Bator.
The Shanghai express – with precious cargo – was late.
Sun Mee and her husband Yuanjin, in their early thirties, were unfamiliar with Dongbianmen station. Following the crowd, the parents-to-be shuffled through an entrance into the vast lobby. The opening bars of 'Happy Birthday' echoed in the noisy vault of a place; trailed by announcement after announcement, 'Qingdao…' it would begin – 'please go to…' – before the words evaporated into hullabaloo as passengers made their way. Yuanjin pointed to an escalator.
"Waiting Hall Number One is for Shanghai," he called to his wife, indicating the upper level.
"I don't think that's right," Sun Mee replied. But could see no alternative.
The couple rose to the second floor. He, a financier for Junan Guoti Securities (Beijing). She, an English tutor from Sichuan Province. 'Happy Birthday' ping-ponged out again.
Sun Mee was intrigued, but not overly surprised, that the nippy foot-odour would stalk her so. Especially today, when she and Yuanjin were faced with the arrival of their first and only child, an adopted son, Yuan. At the apartment in Hong Kong, later in Beijing, for seven childless years she endured Yuanjin's left-foot noisomeness. Why now this salty, persistent 'lick' upon her conscience? Sun Mee knew why. The odour itself was prompting her, 'no.' No, to Yuanjin's project. Today you must make the decision, it said. This really is your final chance. You have been a coward.
On the brink of deserting Yuanjin – just as her village, and its tedious face-changing ceremonies, had abandoned her – Sun Mee felt, once more, that anything to do with children, as in young pregnancy or the birth of a dear, sweet girl, was victual for the urge to scram. Spring Festivals, this year's frigid winter, the earthquake, no event under the sun would soften the heart of her village's Party secretary. Sun Mee could never go home. In Sichuan, she had twice gambled with maternity. And lost. In Beijing, Yuanjin's widower-father called her 'used goods.' When he was alive, the ancient man would say it in earshot of his daughter-in-law. Now he was dead, his reproof sounded all the louder. No matter how much Yuanjin had, at one time, consoled her.
Sun Mee wanted to run. That this particular feeling had re-emerged after adopting a child, made the notion more rash. So grave a betrayal – her fleeing Yuanjin, their son Yuan, and their few Beijing friends – that, until two months ago and the discovery of a stranger's letters, she had been afraid to act.
Today, though, she was again uneasy. Hesitant.
She was, in fact, desperate.
In a few minutes, their newly adopted eight-year-old Yuan, escorted by his orphanage supervisor Mr. Chen, would be here. With the boy, she had once imagined, came her liberty. How long it had taken to secure the moment. Eighteen months of letters, interviews, trips to a Shanghai Child Welfare Institute. Twenty-five thousand U.S. dollars for the rarity of a male; undeformed, full hearing, 20/20 vision, no insanity. Other buyers would simply flout the law.
Yuanjin, aloof and meticulous, had signed Yuan up for the Beanstalk International School (start date, September 1st), hired a perky live-in ayi to "aunty" him (already installed). Enlisted their son in junior golf coaching (day after tomorrow). Yuan would walk into "paradise," Yuanjin and his father were convinced.
Sun Mee had retreated.
She was encouraged to prepare the bedroom. Lilies. Staring mice on Thomas the Tank Engine 'Full Steam Ahead' wallpaper… that rollicked toward curtains. For several weeks, Sun Mee painted ornate trim, and the ceiling. She did her best – and grumbled that Yuanjin did not hire a decorator.
The adoption was Yuanjin's mission. As though birth would right all wrong. The fussy, urban zeal irritated her – and emphasized the separateness of their lives in Tuanjiehu, Chaoyang District. An emptiness that, two years before, had grown deeper with the demise of Yuanjin's father, and the move from Hong Kong to Beijing.
At first, Sun Mee thought she could love the child Yuan. Four times, she and her husband visited him – accompanied the boy to a park near the Shanghai institute. Good-natured, the youngster dutifully played on a climbing frame. Swung on the silver swing. Uncertain, at first, that she and Yuanjin would watch. Observe they did, and Sun Mee's stomach clenched. Yuan was a dimple-cheeked, shy, intelligent lad.
Who could not love him?
Sun Mee could not.
She was unready, her life hardly begun. This was New China, an Olympics country. Who needed Yuanjin or a family? A past? The more her husband groomed Yuan's prospects, the more she craved a future of her own. She had saved money. She could launch a T-shirt business in Houhai, start a Language school in Sanlitun. Yuanjin had no time for Sun Mee's ideas or her opinions on adoption. To him, Yuan's destiny was obvious – a maintaining of of his own family's line and ambitions. Mother, home. Only once did her husband waver in his resolve. A year ago, twelve months after his father's death, and Yuanjin still grief-stricken; and six months into the adoption procedures, he had said, "Could you be a sound mother?"
"What do you mean?"
"After two turns in your village 'Weeping Room'."
Yuanjin was referring to Sun Mee's twin babies, girls, 'taken away.' Listening to his words, and cognizant of the fact that she and Yuanjin were newly settled in Beijing, Sun Mee did not have the conviction to say anything more than, "Of course."
"In spite of my father's view of you?"
"Because of it," she had replied, feigning the defiance.
Why had she not spoken up, Sun Mee asked herself? Or reflected upon Yuanjin's brand of grief for a father he purportedly never loved, or forgave for sending him to college in England instead of America. Would Yuanjin make a good father? It was a question that preyed on her. Yuanjin might be all Yuan would have.
She drifted through the adoption march, and plotted freedom. Sun Mee was unaware, until very recently, that her husband had weighed options of his own for a change of plan.
Absolution for Yuanjin, however, the private person who grew cold in marriage, did require more than an adopted boy, or the shedding of one, Sun Mee believed. She could not pardon her husband's seven year about-face. Where was the teasing, fond Yuanjin? That carefree, raucous joker? Now niff-footed, cheating, ramrod. A ghost of a husband, really – a sometime brute with a temper – who made love with her when the fancy took him.
At the far end of Waiting Hall Number One hung a massive painting of 'Locomotive in Scottish Mountain Valley.' The train was barreling through tunnels, over viaducts, and around a bend. Sun Mee's best friend Hongmei, one of her students, had briefed her about the Qing dynasty railway building. Sun Mee gazed at the fifty-foot high ceiling and mud-coloured, art-deco chandeliers.
Scotland, she thought?
The highland terrain contrasted sharply with a jam-packed throng in the room; wind-blown, russet complexions, tired clothes that spoke of far-off hamlets, towns, and villages like her own, of Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. Places that jolly steam-engine would never find. Surely the hall did more than accommodate people awaiting a Shanghai train? Had Hongmei erred in directing them inside the building? There were hundreds of travellers in this upper-level Waiting Hall. Did you wait here or depart?
Moreover, would anyone, by now, have noticed the state of Yuanjin's foot – shifting with its odourless other on the grey and brown tile? Like puff-puffing smoke in the distant artwork, Yuanjin's foot-reek billowed into the cavernous hinterland, it seemed to Sun Mee. Like swerving carriages against a rail, the ronk tugged at her nostrils. She recalled attempts, before their marriage, of subduing it with baking soda and ground yellow Daikon radish. Vodka baths, and regular appointments at the 'foot massagist's soup wash' in Golden Dragon Hutong. The remedies were no remedy. Too late now. She shook her head. Take your leave of him, the 'salt lick' cried out.
Yuanjin's mocking, slow footsteps. Of rebuke? A dare?
Opposite a chili-chicken vendor, Sun Mee and her husband found blue plastic seats. 'Happy Birthday' boomeranged from the tartan train, 'Qingdao…' – 'please go to…'
The couple sat down; two pairs of feet between steel legs.
"Go on," Sun Mee muttered to herself.
It's time, the cheery foot-pong pinged.
Two months before, as Sun Mee daubed paint on drawers and cupboards in the sleeping quarters for Yuan, she discovered a packsack belonging to her husband. He must have overlooked it. Yuanjin was scrupulous about possessions. She undid the bag. It held finance texts from his graduate school in Durham, England. Letts pencil case, Sony calculator, and rental receipts for a property on Magdalene Street 'near Bankside Post Office' (scrawled in red and underlined). Large manila envelope. Inside, stuffed haphazardly, were printouts of an academic program, e-mail for study groups.
Wrapped in a Burberry silk scarf was a cache of twenty or so notelets from someone called Leo. Evidently from Durham, and not a student.
Sun Mee paused.
Yuanjin kept papers and diaries in a locked filing cabinet in his study.
Sun Mee's English was impeccable. Why not read a few pages?
Odd for an Englishman, she thought, Leo sounded affectionate, perhaps flirtatious. He owned an engineering company, Durham Upshaw's, and was much older than a twenty-three-year-old Yuanjin. In his mid-forties, she suspected. He signed his messages, 'With love and cuddles.' There were nude photographs of Yuanjin and Leo: three close-up shots of her husband in a thong; another of Yuanjin posing on a staircase landing; the two men in a rowboat, 'Windermere Hunks' in pencil on the reverse – with a sentence, in Mandarin, about flowers.
Sun Mee touched her lip.
What blazed from the correspondence, and that her husband stored it, was passion. Judging from later word, however, which Yuanjin also filed chronologically, Yuanjin left England, without Leo, for Hong Kong where Yuanjin's father had found his son employment with Junan Guoti Securities' head office.
Seated on parquet flooring, Sun Mee turned the page:
The 'agony column' from Leo in England to Yuanjin in Hong Kong went on for months:
Sun Mee felt the anguish of this man. Although she did not fully comprehend, or particularly endorse, these kinds of affiliations, what preoccupied her was Yuanjin's conduct. Dropping the man as though he were delete upon a screen was one thing. Ignoring him for good? Westerners could be pathetic in love. But Leo was right, no-one deserved such treatment.
There were recent notes, from last year, forwarded from Hong Kong and, again, filed. Leo was indeed persistent – on a mission of his own. Sun Mee smirked at the unknowing impertinence of a lovelorn English 'comrade' unaware of Yuanjin's posting to Beijing two years ago. Her husband was married now, and thirty-three. Yuanjin could have at least informed Leo of the wedding, if not his whereabouts.
But there was a final letter from Leo – Beijing Upshaw's – that Sun Mee read twice:
Sun Mee gazed at the word 'reunion,' zipped up the packsack, and held it close. This earnest talk. She could barely believe it. Yuanjin's adventurous, student history and its aftermath was not blessed with any secret cubbyhole in his study. He wished her to find these pictures and letters, perhaps. He had compelled her to paint Yuan's bedroom, after all. Was Yuanjin's 'carelessness' a sign of his resignation about Leo, and indifference to her? Regardless, the relationship with Leo was over. Durham man down; but not quite out. Not out at all, as far as Sun Mee was concerned.
She pictured Leo and her husband wearing nothing but life-jackets. The Englishman, and the husband she once loved, sharing a joke about their 'Hunks' nakedness and 'yellow chrysanthemums in a boat.' For many days and nights, she recalled Leo's despairing voice from northern England. Sun Mee pondered how Yuanjin had taken his time to write the man. She marveled at how Leo, in the end, had moved a wall. Did Yuanjin re-read the letters, and reminisce over the photos? Filing them neatly. Were the messages sewn into Yuanjin's tight-lipped, angry ways?
One evening, alone in the Tuanjiehu apartment, she imagined stepping into Yuanjin's clothes and shoes. She trudged through an English valley, clambered over a stile, past sheep grazing. Sun Mee encountered Leo, fully dressed, and told him about her Sichuan village, and how Yuanjin had charmed her at Suzie Wong nightclub in Beijing. She confided to Leo her desire for an independent life, and her dream of Yuanjin and their son Yuan living with Leo. In darkness, Sun Mee watched the ceiling, and its shadowy passing cars. Could her husband smile? For a long time, Sun Mee watched.
She wept quietly – and decided not to confront Yuanjin right away. She needed time to formulate a plan. But one June evening, Sun Mee did follow him to an area not far from home. Tuanjiehu Zhongli. She guessed the purpose of his forays and, these days, was not overly concerned.
But after those letters…
The spot was near Tuanjiehu Park East Gate. Its 'English Corner' was where she and Yuanjin once dated, before he was shipped off to Durham. Often, they had dallied at a pavement calligrapher, and the elegant brushstrokes that disappeared. When all she and Yuanjin had wanted to do was kiss.
She hurried past the gates, and along tree-lined Tuanjiehu Lu. Passers-by in silhouette. Metallic air. Casually, she walked into Tuanjiehu Zhongli. On her left, the familiar row of shops: tobacco store; the pink fronts, coloured lightbulbs, and candystriped pole of a hairdressers. A common salon, 'Manhattan Wave,' that catered to men's, largely Westerners,' needs.
Sun Mee moved close to the window.
Yuanjin in his summer suit was negotiating, alongside a hairdryer, with the establishment's heavily made-up girl. At first, Sun Mee wanted to think he was purchasing his favourite skin-whitening cream, or those stick-on strips that made his eyes look larger.
"Let Taiwanese Barbie enjoy his foot," she whispered to herself, strangely amused that her husband sought a woman. Whoever wanted marriage to a real 'tongzhi,' a thoroughbred poofter, she consoled herself? Yuanjin was stinker enough.
She observed her husband ease aside a doorway of amber beads that revealed an inner parlour, and divan. In the storefront, Yuanjin's girl leaned forward to check herself in a brightly lit mirror.
Even from the street, Sun Mee noticed it – and took a sharp breath. High on Barbie's determinedly flawless throat, perched an Adam's Apple…that swallowed at its reflection.
On her way through Tuanjiehu Park, Sun Mee composed a letter to Leo requesting that, before the end of July, the Englishman meet her and Yuanjin at their apartment. She wished to "hand over the marriage." Sun Mee hoped that her notions would not scare the man off.
In keeping with her husband's method, she addressed the letter to Leo at his company in England, copied to the Beijing branch. She assured Leo it was "the best of news" and that it would "change each of our lives for the better."
Three weeks later, Sun Mee received Leo's reply:
"Is this Waiting Hall for Shanghai arrivals," Yuanjin enquired of a disheveled man who had appeared, from nowhere, at the blue plastic chairs.
"We don't know, either," said a sullen young girl, seated with family, next to Sun Mee.
"This is the Shanghai Waiting Hall," the man replied. "For people who are going to Shanghai." He pointed to the 'exit' signs, but not before asking, far too keenly, their reasons for meeting the train. "Turn right once you're out of the building," he concluded, unsteady on his feet. "The arrivals gate opens onto Dongbianmen plaza."
Sun Mee turned to see if the young girl had been listening. When Sun Mee turned back, the helpful visitor had disappeared. "How do we thank him?"
"After he asked all those questions about husbands, and me sitting right next to you?" said Yuanjin, his face flushed with annoyance.
Sun Mee shrugged. "He's a vanishing act."
"Took the money, and ran," said the girl, smirking. She mimed 'swigging from a bottle.' "Is that your husband next to you?"
"We do need to be outside," chuckled Sun Mee, admiring the girl's black-strapped sandals. "The man's head was screwed on."
"I am Dai-tai," she replied. "From Sichuan Province, like I told that drunk. These are my parents, and Aunty Xiang."
The Sichuan women touched hands.
"I'm hoping my 'Golden Husband' will not arrive," Dai-tai began.
"Come on," interjected Yuanjin, pulling at his wife's arm. "The train must have arrived by now."
Sun Mee stood up.
"Your student Hongmei is to blame," Yuanjin told her. "You should not have relied on such an inexperienced person."
Sun Mee followed her husband downstairs, past the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, and Soft Seat Waiting Hall Number Two, and into the stifling heat. Dai-tai, her parents and Aunt Xiang in tow.
Before the arrivals gate, Yuanjin rests his hand on Sun Mee's shoulder. He stands on tiptoe. "Do these people look like they're from Shanghai?" he asks, as passengers trickle through the doorway and into the jostling crowd.
Sun Mee shrugs him off. She is losing all thought of fleeing. Like her husband, she fixes her eyes on the Dongbianmen gate for a sight of their son Yuan, and his supervisor Mr. Chen.
Several police vans make their way alongside a blood transfusion trailer parked a hundred yards from Yuanjin and Sun Mee. Emergency sirens jar the air. In an effort to let the vehicles through, people press closer. As the convoy halts, a horde of armed officers rush into the station. Sun Mee watches the running policemen, and steals a glance at Dai-tai nearby. The girl is letting her parents and Aunt Xiang monitor the arrivals gate. The Sichuan girl looks helplessly toward the Sichuan Sun Mee. Is this the moment, Sun Mee thinks? Dai-tai and I run?
"That's them!" Yuanjin lurches forward.
"No, no." Sun Mee pulls him back. "He's too old, and with his mother."
Yuanjin tries to tiptoe higher, his head tilting every which way.
Sun Mee feels an elbow in her ribs, and yelps, as a young Chinese woman, shouting in English, pushes past Dai-tai and her family. "There they are, Ruthie!" she says to an elderly foreign lady trying to keep up. "My mother and Plum Blossom!"
"I'm here, I'm here," the Westerner replies, struggling between Dai-tai and her Aunt Xiang. "Keep going, Li Ying."
Sun Mee stumbles aside.
"Mama! Plum Blossom!" The Chinese woman, Li Ying, cries out.
"Plum Blossom?" the foreigner mutters to herself, as she squeezes by Sun Mee. "She's alive?"
"There!" declares Yuanjin, shaking Sun Mee, and forcing himself sideways towards the gate. "Let's go."
Yuanjin's wife moves forward. She glimpses Dai-tai, who is sobbing at the approach of her 'Golden Husband.'
Sun Mee's knees tremble.
Another Westerner prizes himself between the distressed Dai-tai, and her family. The perspiring man heads in Sun Mee's direction. "Yuanjin!" he yells. "Yuanjin! Over here!"
Sun Mee's husband looks around, and stares past his wife, at the newcomer. Yuanjin is still, his face taut and unsmiling.
The nudist from a Windermere rowboat is here. Sun Mee is aghast.
The Westerner reaches Yuanjin, and thrusts his hand toward him. "Congratulations on the adoption," he says, in a tone betraying little of the discomfort in his portly features.
Sun Mee reaches forward, and shakes his hand.
"Leo Upshaw." He seems overheated, and cannot hold a smile.
"You visit Beijing again?" Yuanjin asks.
"To see you, yes."
"Our son is coming from Shanghai today," Yuanjin replies, and turns nervously toward the gate.
"Leo knows," Sun Mee says.
"How does he?"
Sun Mee examines the blonde, not recently dyed, fiftiesh man in his maroon shirt patchy with sweat. He is clutching yellow chrysanthemums.
"Sun Mee?" Yuanjin repeats his question.
"I'm sorry the friendship ended as it did," Leo adds, as though making the best of his opportunity.
Sun Mee senses that the romantic lao wei is about to embrace her husband, kiss him. "I sent Leo the details," she says, wondering what a sleeping dog really was.
Yuanjin closes his eyes, a Beijing minute.
"I think we can make it up," Leo goes on.
Sun Mee imagines that the Englishman has fought long battles with himself. How else could he show up today? She indicates to Yuanjin that Mr. Chen, and Yuan, are at his back.
Flustered, her husband turns to greet them.
Standing their ground as people struggle by, Sun Mee and Leo watch as Yuanjin bows to greet his son.
"Qing…" – please – says Sun Mee, standing her ground as people struggle by. She invites the Englishmen to join her husband and welcome Yuan.
"Prince of China," she reminds him, stepping back.
Yuanjin looks over his shoulder, joy fading from his eyes.
At a loss, Sun Mee pushes off.
"Sun Mee?" her husband says, as Yuan and Mr. Chen look expectantly at the boy's mother.
Sun Mee hurries away toward Jianguomen footbridge.
I have come back, she tells herself. Sun Mee runs up the burning steps – across – and down the other side. A smell of boiling sweetcorn and car-exhaust fills her nostrils. I have. I'm sure.
Around a bend.
Into the afternoon.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 3 Jul 2011