Sunday, December 20, 2015

Till Death Do Us Part - ch6

Translator: ayszhang
Proofreaders: happyBuddha, m@o, Marcia, ying


Au revoir, he said, which meant they were bound to meet again.
Shen Liangsheng really went the extra mile, bringing down his usual exalted exterior. He dressed casually and took the bicycle with him whenever he sought Ch’in Ching out. The places they went to were average and did not reek of greed and wealth.
Ch’in Ching usually took the tram to work, but he hauled his dusty bicycle out of hibernation. The two of them wove through the ancient, narrow alleys and slipped past the London planes growing along the concession roads.
Late September and early October were the best times in the North if the gale did not hit. The temperature dropped, but it was a fresh, crispy coldness. The sky above stretched for miles and miles. The dry leaves on the sidewalk crunched softly under the bicycle wheels
Shen Liangsheng never reserved seats at expensive restaurants again, instead letting Ch’in Ching pick. After trying several places, he decided his favourite to be the pao shop not far from the schoolmaster’s house.
The shop was owned by a Hui man. Only beef and mutton pao were on the menu, but they were as delicious as koupuli. When the pao were served, the steam would force Ch’in Ching to take off his glasses to clean them. Meanwhile, Shen Liangsheng would take this time to pour vinegar into his dish for him. His eyes were on the dish, but his peripheral vision caught the man’s lashes and mole as he looked down, wiping at his glasses with his slim fingers.

They met about five times in the next two weeks or so – not too many and not too few. The tension between them disappeared, and their interaction was like that of regular friends.
“Are you busy this Sunday?”
Ch’in Ching replied hesitantly, “I don’t think so.” He wasn’t afraid of seeing Shen Liangsheng, but it was his Gregorian birthday on Sunday, and he couldn’t tell if the man knew.
“I was thinking we could visit Ningyüan.”
If this were the old Ch’in Ching, he would have made a joke along the lines of, “Two grown men going to a park – that sounds like a delightful time.” However, now he only chuckled and fell silent. Then, he smiled and agreed.
His reaction confused Shen Liangsheng, who in turn raised a brow. “What?”

Hence, the two went to Ningyüan on Sunday. Its name came from the proverb “ning ching chih yüan,” and traditional architecture and sights filled most of the park with a few modern buildings as exceptions. There was also a modest zoo in the northeast corner housing a troop of monkeys.
The two watched the monkeys for a while and then climbed the Chih-yüan Tower. They analyzed the memorial written by the director of Peining Railroads, Kao Chi-i. They then moved from Kao Chi-i to Chang Hsueh-liang. Their conversation flowed smoothly as they strolled along the long, winding gallery on the lakeside.
“Care for some boating?” Shen Liangsheng invited, looking over at Ch’in Ching when they came upon the boat rental office.
Surprisingly, Ch’in Ching did not object. They rented a wooden boat and headed for the centre of the lake.
It was the season for outings, but the lake consisted of twenty-some acres, and the boats were sparsely spread out.
Ch’in Ching complimented Shen Liangsheng on his rowing. The latter confessed proudly that he had been a substitute for the school’s rowing team, and that the wooden boat was a walk in the park.
Shen Liangsheng stopped rowing when they reached the centre and left the boat drifting along with the current. The cozy afternoon sun and the moderate breeze made it easy to fall asleep.
“Can you swim?”
“Ah, yes. Not many Northerners do,” Shen Liangsheng realized. He added quickly, “Not to worry. I’ll save you if the boat tips.”
“Hope I won’t ever have to take you up on that offer.” Ch’in Ching flashed a smile while resting against the gunwale.
The smile made Shen Liangsheng want to lean in for a kiss, but he knew it wasn’t time yet and held back. He went on to tell stories of his school days. He talked about Cambridge, about the River Cam, about the cherry blossoms in spring and weeping willow in summer.
Ch’in Ching listened while his eyes wandered down to the man’s cuffs.
Shen Liangsheng was wearing a grey woolen sweater that he had bought as a student and kept as a memento. The size still fit after five or so years, but it had become worn and was especially pale around the cuffs.
Ch’in Ching stared at the fainted ring of cloth. Shen Liangsheng must have dug out the antique from the back of his wardrobe. It was impressive that he had kept it all these years. Perhaps that meant he was a sentimental person?
With that, Ch’in Ching felt his heart flutter again. It concerned him that he might not be able to keep up his last line of defence if he continued this ambiguous relationship with the man. However, it also occurred to him that perhaps the man wasn’t as heartless as he had assumed. He had held on to a piece of clothing for so many years. So perhaps…
That was when Ch’in Ching caught himself before he wandered too far. He chuckled at himself and averted his eyes to the water. Why bother thinking so much when the man might just get tired soon and stop all this flashy courtship?
“What are you laughing at?”
Ch’in Ching glanced at Shen Liangsheng and spotted a rare look of puzzlement. He couldn’t help but play a prank.
“There’s a fish. A gigantic one,” he said, pointing to the water.
Shen Liangsheng leaned out to look. They were sitting across from each other on one side of the boat, and when he did so, the boat tilted. Ch’in Ching reached for the gunwale for balance but instead grabbed Shen Liangsheng’s hand by accident.
He faltered at the cool touch of the skin, its coolness possibly due to the breeze. He tried to draw his hand back, but Shen Liangsheng had already taken hold of it. After pulling and failing to break free, he gave up so as not to start a childish tug-of-war. He looked up at the man holding his hand.
However, after a few moments, Shen Liangsheng let go first, afraid to upset Ch’in Ching.
“Hey, relax. No one’s looking,” he whispered.
Ch’in Ching could feel the boat bobbing gently, swaying left and right like his fluctuating emotions.
“Ch’in Ching…” Shen Liangsheng called his name softly but switched to Cantonese, “You know I’m trying to win you over, right?
Crosstalk was an art of speech and wordplay, and the Cantonese that Ch’in Ching knew was learnt for the sole purpose of performing. On the other hand, the Cantonese that Shen Liangsheng spoke was quick and muddled, so he could not catch the entirety of his utterance. Nevertheless, he could guess what the man must have meant.
His tone had been a bit playful and gave off a feeling of intimacy, just enough to lure Ch’in Ching in, just enough to give him a taste of sweetness.
Ch’in Ching was too afraid to dwell on that feeling and continued to feign interest in the water. Shen Liangsheng did not speak either. The boat eventually came to a lazy stop in the middle of the lake.

Amidst the stillness, Ch’in Ching suddenly recalled one essay, Autumn of the Ancient Capital, in which the author described autumn in Chiangnan as something one could neither see enough of nor experience completely. For some reason, he felt as though he were living through autumn in Chiangnan right now despite being in the North. It was such a vivid sensation that Ch’in Ching thought he must have lived there before.
Perhaps it was because the author’s portrayal was an exact fit for his current situation – “the feeling of a bud in half-bloom, of wine half-drunk.”
With the gentle waves below and the cloudless sky above, the two of them in this moment for but a fraction of eternity, it was as though they were lovers like any other, embarking on the journey that was love.

In that precise moment, Ch’in Ching came upon his long-awaited answer. He had fallen in love with this man and no matter where the path led, he wished to share the journey with him.
He knew the world was unpredictable and humans even more so, but in this moment, he wasn’t fazed at all.
Maybe it was the sun shining upon him.
The darkness that was the unforeseeable future was totally bleached by the sunlight. All that was left was a sweet nostalgia like the faded sleeves and loose threads around the collar of an old shirt from memory lane.

After they left Ningyüan, Shen Liangsheng proposed watching a movie. Ch’in Ching made a guess with a smile, “You bought the tickets already, didn’t you?”
Not showing one bit of embarrassment for being caught, he nodded and even added, “What should I say in this situation, Mister Ch’in? I came prepared or better safe than sorry? ”
“Yeah, save it.”
“I learn from the best. What can I say?”

Of course, Shen Liangsheng did not buy the tickets himself. It was, as always, Chou who ran his errands. The poor secretary couldn’t figure out why his boss wanted to go to the tiny T’ienkung instead of the more appropriate P’ingan or Tahua. What a strange boss.
Chou did not understand, but Ch’in Ching knew exactly why. About halfway through the movie, his thoughts started drifting again, this time to when he first met Shen Liangsheng. He had thought at the time that it was merely a one-time chance meeting, but he was proven wrong when they met the second time. It appeared that fate was in the works. With that, a line from Dream of the Red Chamber popped into his head: “Retribution is not to be taken lightly; separations and meetings are all foreordained.” But why did such an ominous line appear in his mind?
With the bit of illumination from the screen, Ch’in Ching peered at the man beside him – a view that could not have been any more appealing. It was as beautiful as a Western oil painting. This led him to think of what Chia Pao-yu had said, “a maiden as beautiful as a fairy,” and consequently burst out giggling.
“What are you laughing at now?” Shen Liangsheng asked, leaning a little towards Ch’in Ching while keeping his eyes on the screen.
“I find your behaviour recently quite suspicious.”
“In my defense, Master Shen, we are watching a comedy film. You’re likely the only one in this theatre who isn’t laughing.”
Hearing this, Shen Liangsheng drew a bit closer, eyes still on the screen and face frigid. However, his utterance was quite the opposite of his proper appearance. “Mister Ch’in, why don’t you lend me your hand for a bit? I am certain it’ll rub off.”
Ch’in Ching wasn’t sure how to respond.
It had been more than half a year since they first met. Early spring had become late autumn, but the business at T’ienkung was still brisk. Once he finished speaking, Shen Liangsheng sneaked his hand under and found Ch’in Ching’s. Wary of the other patrons around them, Ch’in Ching did not struggle and quite honestly didn’t want to either. Shen Liangsheng, on the other hand, actually kept his word, only holding his hand without any further action.
After a few minutes, Ch’in Ching took a glimpse at his expression and teased, “Well? Where are those pearly-whites?”
The next thing he knew, Shen Liangsheng turned and a ghost of a smile appeared on his face. It was not much but Ch’in Ching couldn’t look away.
Their eyes stayed locked for a bit before he felt Shen Liangsheng opening his palm and writing five words on it.
The faint scratches crept from his hand to his brain, messing with his head, but somehow he was still able to understand the words. He quickly looked away and took his hand back. He watched the screen, but his face was burning. In the end, his ears became red too.
What he wrote in his hand was –
I want to kiss you.

Night had set in by the time the film ended. The two picked up their bicycles and pushed them at a leisurely pace along Twenty-First. Shen Liangsheng suddenly stopped when they passed by an eyeglass shop.
“I’m allowed to get you something for your birthday, right?”
So Shen Liangsheng did know, after all. “It’s fine. I only celebrate my lunar birthday,” Ch’in Ching replied.
Seeing that Ch’in Ching did not slow down, Shen Liangsheng caught up to him and asked, “What’s your prescription?”
“Your glasses.”
“It’s fine.”
“I don’t have a good excuse to buy you a gift if not for your birthday.” Shen Liangsheng sounded casual, but there were hints of hurt and discontent. “Could you make an exception just for today, please?”
Ch’in Ching didn’t know what to do with this fellow. He sure was learning fast, even knowing to act nice and innocent now. He let out a light sigh but proceeded to tell the man his prescription. He also added, “One good turn deserves another. Now could you tell me when your real birthday is?”
“Long ago. I’ll notify you ahead of time next year.”

Once off Twenty-First, they got on their bicycles. Shen Liangsheng saw Ch’in Ching home as far as the hut’ong entrance.
“Here’s fine. It’s dark and bumpy in there.”
“All right.”
Ch’in Ching said his goodbyes and turned into the alley with his bicycle. However, before he made it very far, he saw the other man park his vehicle to the side and follow him in.
“What’s the matter?” surprised, Ch’in Ching asked.
Shen Liangsheng did not reply. He stopped only when he was very close to Ch’in Ching and gazed at him.
The streetlight managed to illuminate where they stood, and the sound from the nearby streets could be heard.
“Where are you headed, sir?” There was a rickshaw driver hollering for customers, a bicycle passing by going ding-ding and a few kids out past their curfew giggling and fooling around.
The light was behind Shen Liangsheng, and Ch’in Ching could not see his face well. He looked into his deep-set eyes and was reminded of the silent confession in the theatre. His heart began beating faster and faster.
“People will see…” He thought Shen Liangsheng was going to kiss him and blurted out the warning without much thought, but he realized right away it sounded as though he were wishing for it to happen.
Shen Liangsheng still did not answer and only continued to hold his gaze. When he finally leaned in, it was not for the kiss on the lips that Ch’in Ching had been expecting, but instead a light touch on his forehead. The man then wished him good night and left.
He left Ch’in Ching alone in the half-lit alley, eyes closed and pulse slowing in the chilly autumn wind, with a strange void in his heart.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Links for more information:
The Hui people
Pao (baozi)
Koupuli (goubuli)
Ningyuan (Chinese tourism site)
Kao Chi-i (Chinese wiki)
Chang Hsueh-liang
"Autumn in the Ancient Capitals" by Yu Dafu (Chinese lesson)
Dream of the Red Chamber (wiki) (translation from HKU)
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Hutong in Tientsin with yellow rickshaws
Residential hutong in Tientsin

London planes during autumn in China

Pao, or baozi, fresh out of the steamer

Picture of Ningyuan, present day. The pagoda (above) is Chih-yuan Tower.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
ayszhang says: SURPRISE POST!!! :)

Previous chapter
Creative Commons Licence
Till Death Do Us Part - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

No comments:

Post a Comment