It took a considerable time to walk to the Nanjing Bridge. Lizhu had taken the six am metro to the first station past the eastern bank and she had set off straight west towards the Yangtze. The stretch of road had been particularly long between yellow concrete apartment blocks from whose balconies the residents had hung their clothes and towels. The city fog was thick around the heights of these buildings, the upper floors disfigured in the soft rain. Those clothes would get wet and have to be dried again. Lizhu checked the map on her phone, thinking the river should be just at the end of the street but all she could see in the distance was a vaporous line of trees and high bushes.
Getting closer she was reassured that the trees were a part of an artificial wetland that was being used as a levee for the river and turning the corner she saw a mile to the south there was the immense double-decked steel framework of the Nanjing Bridge. On the higher level struggled the white lights of morning traffic and then a cargo train swept and rattled along the lower level.
She spent twenty minutes going down to the riverfront to reach the base of the bridge where the levee returned to being just a concrete slope. It was quiet beneath the high din of the vehicles above; there were few other people about. There was only an old woman in a waterproof poncho and straw hat pulling out reeds from the banks and a pair of old men chatting who had disinterestedly left some fishing rods standing as they sat on their deck chairs on the levee slope.
These men too, like Lizhu, had not bothered with a raincoat that day. At this point the bridge was at full height, its beginning planted deeper in the city, but Lizhu had assumed there would be a stairway that she could climb, but the door on the pillar was boarded shut with plywood. Lizhu went down the slope to ask the old woman how to get up to the bridge but she just stared blankly at her with her worn brown face and charcoal black eyes.
Lizhu went over to the old men, and they consulted each other, and they didn’t seem to want to tell her. They informed her that she’d have to follow the bridge all the way back to where it started if she wanted to go up as all the stairwells had been closed.
She walked through a corrugated fence to walk along the underpass of the bridge. When the bridge was first built as the first major infrastructure project after the massacre and War of Resistance, they had clearly hoped this area below the bridge could be used as a gathering place or market; between each consecutive pillar of the bridge were two curved European style streetlamps whose glass had been long smashed.
Every other stairway had been boarded up, but on a main pillar along a horizontal face that spanned the width of the bridge there was a double door. She couldn’t enter this, but did briefly consider the adjacent window; if she broke off a little more glass she could have fit through the gap. She did, however, peer inside to where there was a hallway with a twenty foot bronze statue of Chairman Mao smiling in front of a red banner.
She was surprised that they had let such a place get so dilapidated. Feeling a draught on her face she looked into the dank dark, filled with building refuse, and saw some stairs going around the back wall, but she decided even if she did this the door at the top would probably be locked.
A half hour later, clambering past a plastic dump to get onto the main roads, passing through multiple crossroads of the early morning traffic, she found the legitimate start of the bridge and started along its rising sidewalk. Even in all her repeated visions of this morning, she hadn’t expected it to be like this. The fog from down the Yangtze valley had submerged the other half of the bridge into grey wilderness, and Lizhu felt she was walking towards nothing.
Beside the first towers on each side there were statues of revolutionary soldiers, glorious eagle-eyed proletariats brandishing rifles and holding high the Little Red Book. There were so many buses with glowing red bus numbers, 525, 536, 555, 525, one after the other, feeding packed hordes into the main city on the other side.
Another thing that distracted her were that the scooters mainly drove on the sidewalk so she was regularly having to stand to one side when some man loudly beeped at her from behind. Lizhu tried anxiously to get a look at their faces, but then they would drive on pivoting past her and disappear off into the nothingness, their luminous ponchos of yellow or blue or red being the last things to fade from view.
The bridge she walked on was now above the water, the wide river flowing from the west, melding with the city and sky, and many coal barges sailed beneath. Lizhu was considering the railing; if they really wanted to stop everyone jumping it would be so easy to make it taller. They should also change the grating, the lines of the pattern had a hole in the centre, inviting like a step. Yet Lizhu felt drained of pure horror; she tried to see the dark ceiling she had seen last night; the pain and humiliation that had been growing, twisting and scalding her, suddenly seemed a little less real.
There was no relief though; she couldn’t face a return home. They had probably already found the note, maybe even called in to her office, where the moths had teemed along the long panels of electric lights, to tell Daixin that he’d be short a worker and would have to hire a replacement. There was to be no reference letter and prospects of future employment were now even worse. She hadn’t moved in ten minutes. She looked up and down the bridge and passing cars, buses and scooters and wondered who would stop her.
Lizhu stared at the world’s largest river port, the container ships slightly more solid in the fog than the towering cranes which arched over the ships like bare winter trees. To test how she felt about it she put her first foot through the railing and lifted herself up. The wind of the drop blew up in her eyes and all she had to do was lean her weight forward. She waited for someone to pull her down but no one did. She turned and stared at the traffic, the drivers of the cars sparing her a glance, the children in the backseat gazing, only some of the people on the bus, fiddling with their phones and sleeping standing up, even took a second to notice her.
Then she felt it again, the rejection, and the confusion, and the rage. She’d thought they were making efforts to stop jumpers. She thought about the stories about Chen Si, the Angel of Nanjing, an ordinary middle-aged man who had gained fame for taking it upon himself to drive up and down the Nanjing Bridge on his scooter, to try and stop the many jumpers from the world’s most popular suicide spot. He’d then take those he saved back to his shelter, and try and help them get back on their feet.
Yet no one was coming for her. She was nearly crying, leaning forward and holding herself up, the air getting painfully caught in her throat. She looked back at the traffic and watched it pass. Now there was a new shame and humiliation in standing here like a stain on society, a foul lack of discretion. The minutes piled up and she repressed a wail.
It took so long that by the end she felt so hollow she didn’t at first notice the black muddy scooter pull up. The drizzle had gotten heavier and a stocky man with a bright yellow poncho hooded over a red baseball cap got off the scooter. He made as if to grab her but he stopped awkwardly when she turned her head to him.
‘Do not jump. Do not jump. It is unnecessary.’ He didn’t sound entirely confident.
‘Are you Chen Si?’
He was a man with a thick jaw and beaded eyes. He had the large dark hands of a laborer and they were reaching out to her. He was young though, no more than thirties.
‘Yes, yes, I am Chen Si. Do not jump. You have only one life.’
‘You are not Chen Si.’
His eyes were full of fear, but he smiled like a man who would not turn back.
‘No, I am Chen Si. Look you are getting wet; it is raining, come here.’
He pulled her by the back of her jumper down as she fell limp. She felt broken and weak from the effort of staying still. Leading her by the shoulder he took out a radiant pink poncho from a bag on his scooter basket, and with some effort got it over her head, Lizhu being persuaded to put her arms through the correct holes.
She got on the back of the scooter. She held him tightly and tried to bury her face in the back of his yellow poncho but he was breathing very quickly and she stopped and straightened her back. Suddenly she was passing through traffic again, weaving between cars, crossing the bridge into the wall of fog which started to recede. She had no idea where she was going or how time was still moving, every second counted by a breath of this man.
‘I will take you to a safe place where we can talk and then we will find out what is wrong.’
They broke a left on the road, then slipped through some food stalls on a side street, the fruit covered by tarpaulin, then took another left to an ally attended by four local dogs, and into a narrow warren interlinking the thirty story high apartment blocks. She lost count of how many blocks deep they had gone; entering one through a black gate left open, he swept around the row of parked bikes and scooters and put his at the end.
‘Here we are. My home is on the sixteenth floor.’
They went in, and stood silently in the dank elevator with a grey haired woman in sandals who left on the thirteenth floor. The man had to pull back a stiff metal grating on his front door and looked through a ring with several keys for the correct one. The room was typically sized and cheaply furnished, one small central room that was bedroom, living area and kitchen, and behind a small door to the side a closet of a bathroom. He was very nervous and he picked up a glass that had been left on the table by the couch and put it in the sink.
‘I’m very sorry, this place is a mess; I am sometimes too busy to keep it clean. The bathroom is there, you got very wet out on the bridge; you can use it if you like.’
Lizhu noted that to herself that it seemed that the room had been recently cleaned. The glass had been the only thing out of place, everything else was put away and dusted, but she saw sauce stains on the tablecloth and yellow smoke marks on the venetian blinds that when combined with the smell beneath the air freshener made her think that this room was not in its natural state. She went into the bathroom and locked the door.
It was one of those bathrooms without a shower curtain, but instead a sloped floor that allowed the water to flow down an open drain. She paused when she saw the fresh towel and soap waiting for her on the windowsill. She decided the best thing to do would just be to dry her hair with the towel. There was a comb, and she ran it a few times through her hair. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman, but her face was still youthful, and she thought with a twitch of disgust that she was probably the most beautiful, if not the only, woman this man had ever brought back here with him.
‘Sit down, sit down – are you hungry? You didn’t have a shower? I can get you fresh clothes if you like; they are men’s clothes but they are dry.’
‘No, I am okay thank you. I like my clothes.’
‘I suppose you must. Would you like tea? I have many flavors.’
He proceeded to take out multiple boxes tea of and place them on the table in front of her. She eventually picked the Oolong tea.
‘Yes you are right that is my favorite.’ He had the kettle already boiled, and he poured out the tea. ‘Now you must tell me – we must fix this – why would you think of doing such a thing? What is this sadness that you have?’
‘Chen Si, it is strange, I thought when I had read about you before that you had been developing a shelter for the people you had saved?’
‘Oh oh, well a shelter is perhaps a too formal name for it. But yes, there is a place where some of the friends who I have brought back from the brink meet up and we talk about everything big and small. First though, my new friends come here and we fix everything.’
‘The article also said that you were an older man and that you had a wife.’
‘Har har, well perhaps I look older than I am? That must be a mistake. And no, I have never had a wife. That must be another mistake, maybe the reporter thought one of my friends was a wife.’
‘Reporters should be more careful. They must be bad reporters. They said that you lived with your two very elderly parents and they helped run the shelter.’
The man took a sip of his tea and this returned some of the colour to his face which had been draining and turning ashen. For the first time so far he looked her in the eye intently and there was a new softness and firmness in his voice.
‘No that is not true. My parents are long gone. They were very good parents and they taught me well and I treated them well in return. But this is enough questions about me. I am well, you are not.’ He leant forward a bit now and his composure faltered as he became overcome with excitement and intensity ‘You are so special, why would you throw away what is so special? What has made you do this?’
‘I don’t particularly want to talk about this now. This is something that it hurts to talk about.’
‘But the time is now! If I didn’t stop you this time wouldn’t even be here.’
Lizhu wondered how long he had been watching her, perhaps he could honestly not have seen that she had hesitated beyond the point where the task was impossible. Still, he was claiming himself as a savior that Lizhu did not feel he was.
‘No the time is over.’
‘No, the time is now! Even if you wish to hold the story secret at first, tell me about what you were feeling that made you want to do that.’
This was received by a silence but his face was as rapt as a mask and she decided to try and appease him. ‘I have been feeling empty for a long time now. I have been foolish and cruel. People have stolen so much from me and there is no way to fix it. It gets worse by the second.’
‘That is where I shall prove you wrong, it gets better! I have helped so many I am certain that I can help you!’
‘You’ve never had anyone who can’t be helped? Who jumped as soon as you turned your back?’
‘Never! Well never anymore… there were one or two early on and I had not learnt fully how… But now I understand how I can help the best and in a way it has not only helped so many but it has also helped myself!’ He lifted himself from the chair and darted towards a cupboard in the kitchen unit. ‘Here, look, one of the men that I once saved was a brilliant young man doing Fine Art at Nanjing University. He was messed up because he hated his parents and was a failure in love. She had lied about their past together, turned what he thought was beautiful into a misshapen lie. I brought him here – and I told him very firmly that he was so special - and he cried and thanked me. I sat him here, gave him paper and paint, and he made all of these.’
He produced a few sheets with watercolors. They were decent but somewhat sloppy, the effect of the greens in the tree beside the pond running into the sky might have been intentional, and there was one of a chrysanthemum whose petals were a pleasing light blue. Still, there were issues of perspective and clunkiness; if there was an art student, he could add lack of talent to the list of his woes. ‘Are these not wonderful pictures? Such a treasure that has been saved! And look at this intricate calligraphy at such a young age - he has all the nuance of a master!’ He pointed feverishly at the characters to the top-left of the chrysanthemum; they were hard to read, near illegible, but said To Chen Si, who saved my life.
Lizhu was falling into tiredness, little able to cope with this man. She gazed into her teacup and hoped vaguely that it hadn’t been spiked somehow. ‘Yes, if you helped him then you have done a very noble thing.’
This was exactly what he wanted to hear. ‘I don’t know about noble!’ he emphasised, brimming with delight, ‘But I do what I can and I hope that I can do the same for you.’
Perhaps, thought Lizhu, saying that you are going to do something and repeating that claim incessantly is some modern tactic of psychology. Maybe the man is a genius. Regardless, she suppressed a yawn but could not supress the second; her eyes and mind were growing heavy. It was probably safe for now, he didn’t seem so bad really. ‘I’m sorry, would it be possible for me to have a short nap? I have had a busy day so far.’
‘By all means! By all means! Sleep is the greatest healer – greater than me!’ Lizhu took off her boots and slumped sideways on the sofa as the man dashed around the apartment looking for a quilt. It made her feel lazy in a nice way and she indulged in a few memories of her father who when she was a child would get similarly anxious when she was sick. The man who claimed he was Chen Si took a deep breath, and began to walk around more slowly, and opening a closet managed to find the quilt. Closing her eyes felt all too good and she didn’t worry about the quilt he would soon place on her.
When she awoke dreamlessly, the man was leaning on the opened window. He was smoking a cigarette with a pitch black filter, angling himself so that all the curled smoke left the room. It was early dusk, she must have slept for hours, and the smog didn’t appear too thick despite the spreads of scattered color and the faint blur of the farthest towers. She presumed he had been watching her sleep; nevertheless he was more wrapped up in himself at that moment.
Perhaps it was just the yellowing sky, but there was a brightness in his eyes, like plum wine. He smiled contentedly when he noticed her watching him, and didn’t feel the need to say anything immediately, and returned to gazing out the window. The wind made a slight sound across the opened window but Lizhu couldn’t feel any warmth or cold from it. The perennial sound of traffic seemed far below. He finished up his cigarette and extinguished in it a saucer. He spoke now in a new and lower voice,
‘Hello Lizhu, I hope you had a good sleep. Are you feeling better? Are you hungry?’
‘Agh, thank you, I think I need to sleep a bit longer but I guess I am awake now. I need a few minutes to wake up before I will know if I am hungry or not.’
‘Okay well I can cook, or if you like we can go out for some food later. Just relax and clear your head.’
‘I’ll have some more of that tea actually. It was very good.’
‘It is isn’t it?’ He said with a small laugh. ‘Yes you look fresher. Sometimes sleep really does make all the difference; it makes what is dreams and what is waking far clearer.’
How little this man knew of her life. He probably presumed some loneliness or stress, another case of being too little for the insatiate maw of the world. She wondered if he understood how memories can tarnish every dream, every thought tainted by warped associations leading to the unacceptability of what actually happened in the real world. The unacceptability of what had become the main events in her life. The unacceptability that nothing can be reset and the sick joke that it all ends in the same way anyway. Placing down her fresh cup of tea in front of her, unbothered by her silence, and possibly pleased that she was contemplating his wisdom, he began again.
‘Yes, you remind me of one of my earliest patients. Especially that withdrawn look in your eyes that you had before you went to sleep, like you were stranded.’
Lizhu decided maybe she could push the man on this point, make the man tell a story better than that spurious one about the art student; authenticity under pressure has a ring of truth, a particularity of detail and imperfect coherence that invention can seldom match.
‘Oh I tend not to discuss the stories of those who came before. I like to give everyone confidence in privacy.’
‘But you said this patient reminded you of me, perhaps their story is the one to help me. Besides you told me the story of the art student…’
He frowned but seemed to decide to maintain composure in front of being so obviously caught and he managed to smile with his eyes. ‘I suppose you are right, do you mind if I have another cigarette?’ She assented and he went back over to the window. ‘Well this young man was a truly tragic case; I hope for your sake that your woes are not so hideous. He is much better now but still I shudder for the pain he must have felt. I shan’t use his real name, we can call him Weifeng.’ He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and stared intently at Lizhu.
‘Weifeng was a hei haizei, an illegal child. He was born in a shed on a farm in Gaungxi province, his father having reared one legitimate son, being a farmer he could have three, but his next legitimate children were daughters, and so he coerced his wife to have five other children to work as free labour. That man was cursed, four more girls who were quite useful, but also Weifeng. The children were kept on the back of the farm till they grew old enough to lift sacks of corn, hidden from authorities, without any hankou documentation.’
‘Life is an incredible struggle without a citizen number, it means no school, no public transport, no buying accommodation, and worst no bank account so no way to get paid normally in a job. Maybe you can stay on the farm if no one asks, but if you want to avoid laboring in fields or sneaking in the back doors of factories, it can turn you into a criminal or a sex worker. I tell you many of those jumping of the Nanjing Bridge are hei haizei and with eight million of them they are larger than many nations on Earth.’
His look told her he was trying to gauge by her reaction if she was a hei haizei. Judging that she was not, he took a breath to calm himself. ‘The father, mother and legitimate children would abuse the hei haizei, beatings and so on. The mother taught them to speak and a little bit of reading, but for the most part they were given less food, less love and less humanity. The family had to be inhumane, it was the only way they could make their crime palatable. Weifeng began carrying the sacks of corn when he was six and he continued until he was seventeen. The family had been making money, and the father full of vanity had been expanding, and someone who hated him was friends with the authorities and as a favour they went to investigate his cheap labour.’
‘One morning, Weifeng saw the policemen park just outside the farm, one off in search of an interview with the parents, three others sent to round up the workers. The father tried to lie his way out of it, but bloods were taken, and he received a huge fine for five unlawful children. There was no chance he could pay so they took his entire corn harvest. He screamed, he protested, he spent every day in front of the magistrate’s office begging for his life back, threatening he would drink poison if nothing was done for him, and with one too many looks of disgust from the security guards he drank the poison.’
‘The mother died shortly thereafter and the legitimate son was given the running of the farm in a state of permanent debt. The hei haizei were to stay with the son, and he probably continues the sick way he treated the sisters to this day, but Weifeng took the opportunity to leave.’
Unnerved by the troubling energy that was brewing in the man Lizhu said ‘You really seem to empathise with what Weifeng has gone through Chen Si.’
‘Yes. We talked for a very long time.’ Unabated, he continued. ‘He found short jobs with truck companies lifting construction materials from the trucks to the sites. Then he reached the Yangtze and he got picked up by the national coal company, loading and unloading the coal barges, and sailing with them up to the mines and down to their destinations. The work was hard, but the exploitation wasn’t personal, and there was a freedom to it; on days between smog, while sailing in those rare non-urbanized parts of the Yangtze, he could lie on his back on the sheets covering the coal and look up at the night sky and feel like someone.’
‘Then a new young man joined the crew, let’s call him Jianbin. He was a humorous guy who became quickly popular with the entire crew. Weifeng had been mostly silent in his work so far, they all thought him as dumb as an ox, and the crew enjoyed the fact that Weifeng was getting paid far less than them, but Jianbin had time for him and made him laugh. Jianbin was soft-spoken but in an insistent way that couldn’t be interrupted; he had a cracked way of telling his stories. He was fond of the English word ‘fuck’ and had mock embarrassing stories involving women and whores that were probably fictitious but it didn’t matter because the jokes were funny.’
‘Anyway, Jianbin had become very interested in Weifeng due to a startling similarity in their appearances, same height build and even face really, and he made fun of Weifeng’s country accent, but Weifeng was able to joke back and soon they became inseparable during the boat journeys. They did their jobs together, with Weifeng’s extra strength being useful to Jianbin, and Jianbin affording him more protection from the others. Jianbin hated the work but he admitted that this extended to all work. He was the first true friend that Weifeng had ever had. Jianbin didn’t like his own family and when he heard Weifeng’s story he was sympathetic and joked that he could have his parents who were assholes.’
He stopped for a moment, losing some momentum, the man poured himself another cup of tea and went back to the window. ‘One night drifting along, Jianbin had a brochure for a perfume ad, a lady in a blue dress with her hair up and with her back turned towards the camera and Weifeng was taking a bit too much of an interest so Jianbin gave him the brochure. He didn’t make it too obvious or embarrassing but Jianbin asked a couple of questions that more or less confirmed that Weifeng had never been with a woman. Jianbin laughed and cheerfully suggested that they should go find some when they reached Wuhan.’
It was edging towards darkness outside and some of the lights from the towers were being flicked on. ‘In Wuhan, they finished up their work and Jianbin discharged himself from the company because he thought coal was too difficult to wash off himself. Weifeng was slipped his cash and Jianbin went to the ATM. They wandered around the shops, finding a cheap department store Weifeng bought himself a shirt with a floral print and from a stall on the side of the road shoes that weren’t muddy. Jianbin led him off to some of the business estates to the east of the city, where there were some run down bars and the like but Jianbin couldn’t find the one he was looking for. It took them into the late hours of the morning, and reaching the warehouse of a car company Jianbin began to get tired and suggest that he was sorry and had fucked up the evening.’
‘It was quiet and still, there was no one else about and no streetlights, and Weifeng said he saw something down the alley behind the warehouse. Jianbin didn’t know what he was talking about, and was asking why the fuck he was going down that alley, but being left alone he followed him. Weifeng paused in the alley and looked around, finding a half empty cylinder of petrol which he studied for some time, and then he turned back and approached Jianbin with no expression and took out a knife and slit his throat. Jianbin was so surprised he had barely raised an arm to stop him and Weifeng held his face in the mud as the blood poured out.’
The man had lost interest in his tea, but he gave it a quick look, and placed it on the windowsill. ‘Yes he said it was terrible and there was so much blood. Weifeng took off his new and ruined shirt and threw it over the head where more blood seeped through. If he pushed down it just caused more to come out. He took his wallet and the hankou documents that Jianbin had been carrying and he lifted him into a paper bin. Then he poured the petrol in the paper bin and with a match set it on fire. The flames were tall and red and they sent long shadows and smoke along the alley walls.’
‘Weifeng was terrified, and he couldn’t move, he hadn’t thought there would be so much smoke - someone was bound to come and catch him. He finally decided he had to run away as fast as possible lest someone photograph his own tall shadow on the wall and use it to identify him.’ The man grimaced as if to suggest that Weifeng had been stupid to think such a thing, ‘He ran, and no one gave chase. He walked northwards until the sun rose, got on a bus to the train station, looking enough like Jianbin he used the hankou at the counter and booked a train to Beijing, the first he had ever taken. He found work there and was paid in full for the first time. He sent a letter to Jianbin’s parents telling them that he hated them and never wanted to see them again. Then work took him to Nanjing, he found the bridge, and I found him.’
‘You saved a murderer?’
‘Yes, yes I did. And now he is no longer a murderer, and he didn’t fall off the bridge.’
‘So he goes around living the life that Jianbin should have had?’
He frowned, clearly agitated by her line of questioning, and knelt forward as if to convince her of a crucial point.
‘Why waste a citizen number? Why waste two lives? This way he can live for good.’
‘Does he live for good?’
‘Yes, he tries. Maybe he is not remarkable but he tries.’
‘And how is he not consumed by guilt? How is it possible for him to live with himself? It makes me sick.’
Paradoxically, with visible effort, he held his face expressionless.
‘Yes, you are very sick and need to be cured but we’ll get there. Maybe it is you need time to think, think about what can be lost and what can be gained, think about how people are not that different really.’
His enforced calm concerned Lizhu more than his increased intensity and she backtracked,
‘I guess one must know the man, and I hope that you are right in trusting him.’
‘I agree, but I do not need hope. I know.’ He stood up, and with a motion of his back of his hand gestured for her to hand him her cup, ‘Come, I think it’s time we get out of this apartment, maybe we can go get some food. There is a place down the road run by a man called Lu, he does good noodles with black bean sauce. Or fresh dumplings if you want them, he always has many.’
They left the apartment. The lift was slow coming so they went down the emergency stairway, the windows looking east showed the flat clouds still receding and the moon rising from the ramshackle city below. The air was warm and the dust sweet as Chen Si checked his scooter but then suggested it would be as easy to walk. Mothers were at the balconies squeezing the lingering damp in the left out clothes, a group of boys watched two older boys in soccer jerseys trying to perform bicycle tricks, and Lizhu and the man had to cross to the other side of the street when a group of construction workers came along carrying building materials and tools for their night shift.
‘It is an important thing to always look at the people around you, and remember that all of them have probably thought about jumping off the bridge at least once. Yet here they are, they seem happy, and it is a nice evening.’ He pulled her lightly by the wrist as he made the snap decision to cross the road, the cars slowing down without protest or surprise and swerving around them, ‘It is a time to think about good things. You said you were not from Nanjing, have you tried the famous Nanjing noodles?’
‘No, I haven’t, this is my first time in Nanjing.’
‘You must try our famous Nanjing noodles, they are delicious, the very best. May I ask where you are from?’
‘Well my family is based here in Jiangsu Province but in a smaller town near Suzhou but I haven’t been living there for a while.’
‘Yes, Suzhou, there is very good food in Suzhou. The best moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn festival that I have eaten were from Suzhou; I think it was a famous bakery because people had been queuing all morning to get these moon cakes and I bought five just for me and they were excellent moon cakes.’
‘I think I know the place you are talking about but I never went there.’
‘Oh you should go, you should go.’
They turned the corner and crossed the road again to a row of open street shops, the heavy yellow light glaring and the chatter and activity loud and the pop music quiet. The seventh shop down, the tables outside half-filled and the tables inside mostly empty, was Lu’s.
‘Good evening Lu. That sure smells good.’
Lu, a short man in a polo shirt with balding dark black hair in a comb over, was standing in front of the shop, on barbecue duty with the spiced chicken skewers. Lu didn’t hear the man’s greeting and he just shouted back at his wife something about the rice and she shouted back at him. They went into the cramped interior and took an empty table in the corner near the fan. A member of Lu’s family, a daughter or niece perhaps, came over and asked them what they wanted and they ordered the noodles with the black bean sauce.
‘Best noodles in Jiangsu Province, you will soon see.’ assured the ‘Chen Si’ man smiling, seeming pleased with the eye contact he was making. They had just gotten some water when they heard a deep voice outside the door order,
‘I’ll have the egg fried rice, Lu, with both the chicken and the pork giblets. Do you have sweetcorn today? Yes, add the sweetcorn.’
In walked a tall man, Lizhu looked at him when she noticed repressed anxiety spread into the corners of the eyes of her companion. The entrant appeared to be an older man dressing young with long black hair down to his shoulders, with a black zipped up sports jacket, large spectacles. He smiled at the table with a crooked yellow grin.
‘Hello, little Honglin,’ he said touching him on the shoulder, ‘you have a lady friend with you, who is this? Nice to meet you.’
Waving his hands to indicate a misunderstanding and gathering a small toothed smile of his own ‘Oh I’m sorry, I think you must think that I’m someone else. What is your name?’
This only seemed to amuse the tall man on some level; he paused before he responded, ‘My name is Guoyi as you know, and you are Honglin my little friend who works with me on the docks. How could I be mistaken?’
‘This is very funny, I must look very much like this man but I must say my name isn’t Honglin and I have never met you before sir.’
The man snorted, and looked between the man and Lizhu considering the situation, ‘I suppose this is possible. Honglin would never be quite so polite as you sir, or be sitting at a table with a lady friend because all his conversation is rubbish.’ The crooked grin widened watching the reactions, and he sat at the adjacent table, the noodles with black bean sauce and his egg fried rice all arriving at the same time, and with his chopsticks he picked up a fist sized chunk of rice and fit it into his wide mouth. ‘Hey Lu! This guy, isn’t this Honglin here?’
From the doorway Lu called in ‘I don’t know, that is the guy with the noodles and black bean sauce, even when I have tasty chicken skewers fresh from the fire, always with the noodles and black bean sauce’ and he shrugged dismissively.
Guoyi chuckled ‘Your wife makes a good sauce Lu, we cannot hold this as proof. Well sir, one thing you could do for us is show us your shoulder as I know for a fact that my good friend Honglin has a scar on his shoulder’ his long-fingered hand once again extended to the man’s shoulder.
The arms was blocked gently with the man laughing ‘Really, you are a very curious man, but I do not want you checking my shoulder’
‘Why not? What is the harm?’
‘It just isn’t okay and I would like for you to stop talking to us now as I am having no time to talk to my friend.’
‘I see, have it your way. I’ll be talking to Honglin soon enough and we’ll soon see if you are telling the truth.’ He laid back in his chair, turned away, and concentrated on his rice with a smirk.
Turning back to the noodles, which were quite good but not exceptional, the man said to Lizhu as quietly as he could without it being obvious that he was trying to be hard to be overheard ‘You know Lizhu, I have to say that I did tell one lie: I’ve never really been to this restaurant before. I heard it was good from a friend and I brought you here thinking you might enjoy it, the food is good, but the people are very strange.’
Guoyi, pretending to look at his phone, let out a chuckle at this. He turned his head again and watched them with contempt but did not say a word. The man slurped down most of his noodles in an impressive time and then said he was going to the bathroom and maybe they could head back to the apartment when they finished up. This left Lizhu along with the remainder of her noodles and Guoyi who sat at his table staring at her intently.
‘So your name is Lizhu? Why are you with this man? Surely you are not his girl. He is a terrible man.’
‘I’m not his girl. I am a friend of his.’
This answer interested him even more. ‘Old friend or new friend?’
He considered this. ‘You should be very careful. No one knows about little Honglin, he is always lying. He has no internet, no QQ, no WeChat, no one knows where he comes from or what is true.’
‘He doesn’t seem so bad to me. He is strange but I think he is probably kind.’
Guoyi leaned forward again ‘What did he say his name was to you?’
His eyes lit up suddenly like there was glass in them that fractured and he let out a ringing laugh ‘Hey Lu! Lu! Listen to what Honglin has been saying his name was – Chen Si!’
‘Chen Si – the angel!?’ Lu was laughing wildly revealing some of his missing teeth, taking some of his skewers away from where the flames were becoming too high.
Guoyi turned backed to Lizhu, swallowing his laughter but barely able to stop his thick amphibian lips from forming a smirk. He had a rotten face and cruel eyes, thought Lizhu, and he leant towards her and whispered,
‘Run. You should run.’
Lizhu considered telling him that she didn’t need to and that it was alright. She thought that maybe she should say this man had a good heart even if he was crazy and that he wanted to help people. Yet long second after long second passed looking into the terrible face of Guoyi, and she thought of the towel and soap waiting for her, the freakish intensity with which the man had told his stories, the way he had gazed at her longingly, the quilt she had woken up beneath, the way he had spoken about the murderer – ‘I know’ he had said – and she felt a chasm within herself.
‘Quickly, you should go. He will be back soon.’
Instinctively she looked around for her handbag and then remembered she didn’t have one and she stood up and headed for the doorway. Lu walked over to Guoyi’s table, and he whispered something, and they stifled it for a second but they then burst into howls of shrill laughter.
It was late and in a poorly lit part of the city she did not know. The buses had stopped running and the taxis did not roam this area. She knew it would take her hours to walk anywhere and she didn’t want to ask for directions. She wanted to go back to the Nanjing Bridge, but she knew the man would be waiting for her, searching up and down.
Eventually finding again the sleepless veins of the main city, the glitzy advertisements for clothes and weddings looming higher than ever, she went back to the hostel she had left her stuff in and crept into her bed as silently as she could though she knew she had woken up the other customers with the click of the door. The next morning, she found she could turn even colder when she heard on the news that a docks worker called Guoyi had been brutally murdered in his home.