© NA Randall
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Since his wife’s death, Mr Han had led an orderly yet lonely existence. During the day, he tended his vegetable plot, read books, and cooked simple, sustaining meals. At night, if the solitude became too oppressive, he sat in a quiet corner, hummed a soothing tune, and looked back over the joys and disappointments of his long life. In the main, he thought about the tender moments he shared with his family, and didn’t dwell on the unedifying times. Having fought in two bitter wars, Mr Han had witnessed the very worst of human nature. He'd seen friends maimed and killed. He’d been forced to do cruel, destructive things, things that leave an indelible mark on a man. When these dark recollections crept up on him, he tried to think about something else. If allowed to fester, a bad memory can poison the good ones.
This was the case with an incident from Mr Han’s more recent past. A year ago, a highly respected local official approached him for support, having been accused of appropriating monies from a local school fund. Mr Han once worked with the official’s father, and while only vaguely acquainted with the son, he felt duty-bound to sign a petition in his favour. The official swore he’d behaved with complete propriety, and this was more than good enough for Mr Han. Being a man of honour, he took another person on his word and past deeds. When the official was eventually found guilty, Mr Han’s reputation became tainted, and through his misplaced allegiance he lost the respect of the local community. He was treated like a pariah, and friends and colleagues of long-standing turned their heads if they saw him in the street. This was a source of great shame and embarrassment to Mr Han.
The incident also precipitated a breakdown in relations with his only child, his daughter, Peng Ming. Many years ago she made a favourable match, marrying the son of a prominent local judge, the very man presiding over the case of the misappropriated school funds, and someone who took a very dim view of Mr Han for supporting a man implicated in the crime. Due to his fall from grace, things between Mr Han and his daughter became extremely awkward. While Mr Han was convinced of Peng Ming’s continued love and respect for him - at heart he knew she was a good and kind young woman – social conventions required her to obey her father-in-law implicitly. She was now living under his roof, and any meetings between Peng Ming and Mr Han were, therefore, frowned upon. The only concession was that Peng Ming’s daughter, Li Chi, be allowed to visit her grandfather for an hour every Sunday.
These visits were a source of great pleasure to Mr Han. Like all grandparents, he saw something special in his granddaughter’s impeccable manners and caring nature. To his mind, she represented something pure, something untainted by the cynical and base things in life. She had a certain charm and simplicity, reminiscent of his wife. In fact, they shared many traits: their smiles; the expressions on their faces when tired or agitated. Things that made him wonder what mysterious forces were afoot, and whether a little of his wife truly lived on in their granddaughter.
In the early hours of one Saturday morning, while it was still dark outside, Mr Han was woken by his neighbour, Chun Zeng, and his two ne’er-do-well sons. After one of their usual Friday night sprees, they were now in search of food and more drink, and bustled around their shack, singing bawdy and obscene songs. Invariably, this would end with some sort of argument, and the great, lumbering Chun Zeng would have to separate the warring siblings. Whenever Mr Han complained, Chun Zeng apologized with the kind of effusiveness lacking in any kind of sincerity. He would bow and pat Mr Han’s shoulder (something the older man found invasive and disrespectful). And although he promised it would never happen again, the very next Friday the same scene played itself out. Mr Han wasn’t concerned for himself. It was the complete disregard for fellow neighbours which upset him most.
Later that morning, Mr Han prepared to leave for the market to purchase a few ingredients needed to make the sweet delicacies his granddaughter liked best. When he pushed open the door, a foul smell assailed him, and he heard the unmistakable sound of a man relieving himself: a noisy, gurgling jet of urine splashed against the ground as if it was never going to stop. Mr Han turned and saw Chun Zeng’s hairy back poking out from some bushes to the rear of his property. Evidently, his outside toilet had backed up again. Mr Han felt both affronted and distraught. Decent people didn’t relieve themselves in full view of their neighbours, and more worryingly, the last time this happened his daughter had warned him that Li Chi would no longer be able to visit. With some justification, she cited the unsanitary conditions. Moreover, what sort of sight was this for a young, impressionable girl? Understandably, she didn’t want her daughter exposed to such things.
Mr Han stepped over the puddle of urine snaking its way down the dirt-track, and confronted Chun Zeng. As he fastened his trousers, Chun Zeng passed wind loudly and abruptly, shook his leg, and turned towards his shack.
‘Mr Han!’ he said. ‘What are you doing creeping up on me like this? I almost had a heart attack.’
Mr Han mouthed some vague words of apology before addressing the matter at hand.
‘Your toilet is blocked again,’ he said. ‘I thought that friend of yours fixed the problem once and for all. This isn’t good enough. As you know, my granddaughter is due for her weekly visit tomorrow. I can’t possibly entertain her with this mess in the streets. It isn’t hygienic. It isn’t fair on everybody who lives here.’
Chun Zeng wiped his wet hands on his trousers legs. He looked incredibly apologetic, his fat, wobbly chins shaking as he offered an explanation.
‘Do not fear, Mr Han. Everything is in hand. My friend is due to return this very morning, and will have this mess sorted out long before your granddaughter’s visit. Ah! What a fine young girl! I’ve often seen her. You must be very proud.’
Hearing his granddaughter’s praises sung softened Mr Han’s anger.
‘Why yes, of course,’ he said. ‘We have high hopes for her.’
When Mr Han returned from the market, two scrawny men with wooden rods were working at the rear of Chun Zeng’s house, clearing the blockage in the pipe that ran to the main cesspit. Mr Han felt relieved. Even though the smell was much worse than before, at least it was now being taken care of. In contrast to Chun Zeng’s many broken promises, this was reassuring.
As darkness fell, Mr Han looked out of his kitchen window, and saw the two men packing away their equipment. Everything seemed to have been taken care of satisfactorily.
After eating his evening meal, Mr Han opened a book, hoping to pass an hour or two reading, safe in the knowledge that no unwanted surprises awaited him in the morning.
As always, preparations for one of Li Chi’s visits necessitated an early start, and Mr Han was in the kitchen just before dawn. Over the course of his married life, he picked up a few special recipes from his wife, and had become adept at making various sweet treats, cakes, and sugar-coated delicacies, the likes of which any young child finds hard to resist.
When finished, he brushed and parted his thinning white hair, smoothed down his elaborate moustache, put on his finest tunic, and even splashed on a little of his favourite cologne. After checking himself in the mirror, he pushed open his front door, and waited on the steps for Li Chi to arrive. Only the slightest trace of yesterday’s unpleasantness tainted the air, but the walkway was clear, and for that Mr Han was thankful.
No sooner had he stepped outside, than he saw Li Chi come running up the dirt-track.
‘Grandfather!’ She jumped up and wrapped her arms around his neck.
‘Careful!’ Mr Han feigned injury - as he always did. ‘You’re getting so big and strong, you almost knocked me clean off my feet.’
The little girl laughed, and taking her grandfather’s hand, they walked up the wooden steps to his shack.
Mr Han brought out the usual treats, and set about boiling water for the tea.
As it transpired, Li Chi was in especially high spirits. Her end of term school report had been so good her parents promised to take her to town to buy a new dress. Pleased as he was with this news, Mr Han felt a little despondent, as he desperately wanted to reward the girl with something himself. As he waited for the water to boil, he tried to think of what he could give her. The only thing that came to mind was a brooch he purchased for his wife on their last wedding anniversary. The stone was not very expensive, but was an attractive trinket, with great sentimental value. Originally, Mr Han intended to give it to Li Chi when she came of age. But unable to resist, he resolved that today was as good a day as any. Who knows, he thought to himself, I could very well drop dead tomorrow. Gone are the times of planning ahead. When a man reaches a certain age he should try and get as much enjoyment out of life as he possibly can.
When he came back through with the tea tray, Li Chi was playing with her dolls and toy teaset, acting like a conscientious and attentive hostess. Mr Han smiled. These porcelain dolls once belonged to Peng Ming. Even though twenty-five years had passed, each was still in impeccable condition, their quaint silken outfits bore no traces of wear, and each dangly limb remained intact. This made Mr Han realize how fitting it was to give Li Chi the brooch now. She was clearly a child who looked after things, who never took items for granted or treated them without due care or attention.
He set down the tray.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘As you’ve been such a good girl, obtaining top marks in your classes, I think it only right and proper that I give you a gift of some kind, too.’
Li Chi’s face bore a slightly conflicted expression.
‘You don’t have to do that, grandfather,’ she said. ‘You always go to so much trouble when I call round on a Sunday, baking me all these delicious cakes. It’s more than enough reward to make my parents and grandfather happy and proud of me.’
‘Nonsense,’ he said, touched by her consideration. ‘It’s not very extravagant. But something I’m sure you will derive immense pleasure from.’
Mr Han kept his most treasured possessions in a wooden chest. He walked to the other side of the room and unfastened it.
‘Don’t peek,’ he said in all seriousness. Inside the box were his war decorations, and the sword he used during his time as a soldier, things he didn’t feel a girl of her age was ready to see. ‘Go on. Go and sit down. In a moment, I will give you your gift.’
Mr Han unfolded the piece of cloth covering the brooch, and gave the stone a brief shine before presenting it to Li Chi.
‘There you are,’ he said. ‘This is yours now.’
With a look of deep gratitude on her face, Li Chi examined the brooch in the palms of her hands.
‘Oh, thank you so much, grandfather,’ she beamed. ‘I – I remember this from somewhere. Didn’t grandmother wear it on special occasions? How wonderful. Don’t worry. I shall take special care of it, and I will only wear it on special occasions, too.’
As he watched Li Chi pin the brooch to her blouse, and then admire herself in the mirror, Mr Han’s face became wet with tears. He knew he’d made the right decision. He knew his wife would’ve approved, and that Peng Ming would appreciate the significance of the gesture, too.
After Li Chi packed away her dolls, and carefully placed the brooch in her bag, they went outside and waited on the steps for her mother. Just as she appeared, Mr Han heard the unmistakable sound of a man relieving himself: a noisy, gurgling jet of urine splashed against the ground as if it was never going to stop.
He swung round.
Bleary-eyed and unshaven, staggering almost, one of Chun Zeng’s sons was in the bushes to the rear of their property.
Li Chi looked confused, and a little afraid. Mr Han blocked her view, and tried to usher her down the steps before the stream of urine started to flow along the street.
He was too late.
Peng Ming rushed up the dirt-track, grabbed Li Chi by the arm, and dragged her away, flashing her father a look of such reproach, it almost forced him to his knees.
Through very different tears to the ones he shed a short time ago, Mr Han watched Peng Ming and Li Chi disappear.
The next morning, he received a letter from his daughter.
In view of the unacceptable scene at your house yesterday, I regrettably inform you that Li Chi can no longer visit you. As you well know, this is not the first time she’s been exposed to your neighbour’s disgusting behaviour. I deeply regret that things have come to this, but I’m sure you have Li Chi’s best interests at heart, and will understand that my decision has been made with this in mind. Please do not try to contact me. Our decision as a family is final. I will of course write to you at regular intervals to inform you of Li Chi’s progress.
Respectfully, your daughter
On reading the letter through, Mr Han went over to his wooden chest and took out his sword and scabbard. If he couldn’t see his granddaughter any more his life was devoid of meaning, and he was too old and tired to try and broker some kind of long, drawn-out reconciliation. Peng Ming was, after all, in the right, and doing what most conscientious mothers would do.
Being a proud man, Mr Han wanted to uphold his honour, just as he had when fighting enemy forces on foreign soil, and as he tried to do in all areas of his life. Fastening the scabbard around his waist, he straightened his clothes, took a deep breath, and stepped outside.
He crossed the unmade road and banged on Chun Zeng’s door. He could hear raised voices inside, so knocked once again, a much harder, louder knock this time.
Eventually, Chun Zeng answered. Still sleepy and half-drunk, he failed to notice the sword around Mr Han’s waist.
‘Ah, Mr Han,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you? I was just in the middle of preparing our lunch.’ He gestured over his shoulder. ‘Perhaps we could talk later.’
Mr Han shook his head.
‘This will only take a moment,’ he said. ‘Please, step outside.’
Only then did Chun Zeng notice the sword.
‘Wait, Mr Han,’ he said. ‘What – what are you doing?’
Mr Han took a step back, and unsheathed his weapon, its blade gleaming in the early afternoon sun.
Chun Zeng started to ramble and beseech.
‘Mr Han, please,’ he said with tears in his voice. ‘This is…what have I done? Don’t hurt me. Please, I -’
Mr Han raised the sword above his head.
Chun Zeng cowered, his hands covering his face.
With great force, Mr Han brought the sword down, turning the blade in on himself, using all his remaining strength to pierce right through his own belly, and out through his back, pulling the blade up towards his chest. He got about halfway before collapsing to the floor, a pool of dark blood forming on Chun Zeng’s doorstep.