Proofreaders: happyBuddha, Kai, Lee, m@o, Marcia
Till Death Do Us Part chapter 18
Life had to go on no matter how hard the times got.
The Japanese army followed their strategy to control China using its own people. As soon as they occupied Tientsin, they established a puppet organization called Tientsin Peace Preservation Committee at a speed so quick it would have been impossible if they had not plotted beforehand. The Chamber of Commerce had been under Japanese control long before, and the visitors on the seventh of July had come looking for Shen Liangsheng to talk him into becoming a member on the Committee. The Japanese had come for Shen K’echen’s name. The member list of the Committee consisted entirely of former warlords hiding in Tientsin after the Peiyang government had fallen. These men and their unfulfilled ambitions finally had an opportunity to obtain power and wealth, and they were all more than happy to comply. Those who weren’t good enough to make the list by the Japanese’ standards even felt disgrace.
The Japanese came looking for Shen Liangsheng, but he kindly declined, for he was even more devious than the Japanese. He knew that this golden opportunity came at a dire cost; like drugs, starting is easy but quitting is hard. Therefore, he used his father’s old age and his own limited abilities as a mere bookkeeper as excuses to refuse the post.
“You’re being modest, Mr. Shen.” The director of the Chamber had come to persuade Shen Liangsheng and feared upsetting the Japanese boss. He quickly tried to mediate. “Everyone in the business knows you’re a graduate of a prestigious English university. You’re just being humble with us. Haha….”
While the director was still laughing awkwardly, the Japanese man interrupted in English, “Mr. Shen, did you study at Cambridge?”
Though a bit surprised, Shen Liangsheng kept his face straight and nodded. “Did you study there as well, Mr. Kobayakawa?”
“You’d already graduated when I was studying under Professor Berger.” Kobayakawa had found that Shen Liangsheng looked familiar, and now that it had been confirmed, he smiled and added, “I’ve seen your photograph with the professor. He thinks very highly of you.”
“It’s not like Professor Berger to be showing his personal photographs to people. He must think highly of you as well.” Shen Liangsheng was skilful with his words and made Kobayakawa feel quite happy. Also, the Japanese man had read several of Shen Liangsheng’s reports during school and had a good opinion of him. Thus, he did not force the man to become a part of the Committee and thought to postpone the matter until the Japanese army took total control of Tientsin first.
The others from the Chamber noticed that Kobayakawa was not upset and let out a sigh of relief when they found that the two were actually fellow alumni. They said with a smile that the road ahead was long and there would be more opportunities to work together again. That is why the atmosphere appeared amiable when Chou saw the group once again.
Shen Liangsheng had not even informed his father of this, so Ch’in Ching naturally had no idea either. On the day of the bombing, the Japanese army flattened the entire Nank’ai school grounds including the secondary and primary schools because of their hatred for its nationalist stance. Luckily, the teachers and students who had joined the army formed a separate unit whose job mainly was to direct traffic. The silver lining was that the casualty number was not high, and Ch’in Ching’s friend was unharmed as well.
During this devastating time, Ch’in Ching was of course helping his friends with all he had, being away from home for most of the day for a week straight. Shen Liangsheng had been strict with him before but now didn’t seem to care anymore, only reminding him to be careful and eat regularly. He made sure that the kitchen prepared soups for him to drink every day. Ch’in Ching appreciated the kind act but didn’t mention his thanks. He thought words of gratitude would actually seem out of place in their intimate relationship.
There was another thing Ch’in Ching didn’t mention but which was weighing on Hsiao-Liu’s mind. Nanshih was the lawless zone, but due to its proximity with the Japanese and French concessions, it survived the bombing in one piece. Seeing the streets return to normal and his house still intact, Hsiao-Liu told Ch’in Ching that he wanted to move back and, while he was at it, asked when Shen Liangsheng would be available. Petite de Ceinture was on the far west end of the French concession, and he had witnessed numerous families trying to find shelter in the concession but being blocked off. The Lius owed quite a big favour to Shen Liangsheng, so even though he didn’t even know how to repay the man, he wanted to thank him in person.
Ch’in Ching was a smart person. He knew that Shen Liangsheng was good to him, even going as far as taking care of his friend. Even if he didn’t say thanks, he couldn’t take this for granted. Therefore, he passed on the message to Shen Liangsheng that night. He also said thanks on behalf of his friend, and relayed that Hsiao-Liu would like to come say it himself if he was free tomorrow.
“No need,” Shen Liangsheng replied as he switched off the lamp and lay down on the bed. “It’s no big deal.”
Ch’in Ching didn’t agree that it was no big deal, but he knew Shen Liangsheng never liked to repeat himself. If the man said there was no need, then there was no need. It was just that he still felt bad and was thinking of another way to bring it up.
“If he really wants to thank me,” Shen Liangsheng added as though he could read the schoolmaster’s mind, “Tell him, when they reopen their teahouse, to invite me when you two perform another piece.”
“That’s it?” Ch’in Ching was surprised by this request that sounded like a joke. He chuckled easily for the first time in a long time. “You are still so easy to please.”
Shen Liangsheng smiled, but Ch’in Ching did not see it because they were lying side by side in the dark. He only heard the taller man say, “I’ve only heard you that one time.”
“Oh please, you don’t actually like it.” The two seldom had relaxing times like these lately, so Ch’in Ching continued the light banter. “You think I’m too wordy.”
“I don’t actually think so. You’re an entertaining person.”
“Was that a compliment?”
“That time I went looking for you, I saw you on the podium all teacher-like. Then you were great in the crosstalk performance. And I was wondering how you’d be in bed, and with that quick tongue of yours, how you’d be great at oral.”
Shen Liangsheng’s words became more and more lewd, but because of his voice – mild, nostalgic and even a bit wistful – they seemed chaste and pure. The man seemed to be reminiscing times in the distant past which were never coming back, and it made Ch’in Ching fill with sorrow.
They were never coming back. Things were bad back then too, but at least…. The rest of the thought pained Ch’in Ching. He turned over and hugged Shen Liangsheng around the waist, hiding his face in the nook of the man’s neck. After some silence, he recovered and continued the previous conversation. “We’d just met and you already had such indecent thoughts.”
“It’s summer for goodness sakes.” Shen Liangsheng did not seem to want to continue, and he patted the arm around his waist. “Lie back down and go to sleep.”
“All right.” Ch’in Ching also thought it would be too suggestive if he kept clinging to the other man. He was not in the mood to begin with, so he lay back down and closed his eyes in preparation for sleep.
“Ch’in Ching.” After tossing around, Ch’in Ching was almost asleep when he heard a faint utterance from behind. “You don’t have to return the favour, and you don’t have to worry about it, either.”
Usually, this would be a very normal thing to say, and it sounded perfectly fine. However, Ch’in Ching lost all desire to sleep after hearing it. His heart seemed to give a loud lurch, and then he felt a frightening emptiness for which he did not know the reason. He contemplated but reached no answer. In the end, he came to the conclusion that he was half-asleep and something must have gone wrong with his head.
Since Hsiao-Liu had moved back, Ch’in Ching thought it was about time to tidy up his own house. He told Shen Liangsheng that he would sleep at home for a few days while he gave the house a total cleanout. The other man did not object and offered his help, but when Ch’in Ching declined, he did not insist.
Frankly, it did not take that long to fix the house, but Ch’in Ching was worried that Shen Liangsheng would decide that living outside the concessions was too dangerous and urge him to move to Maoken. Ch’in Ching didn’t really want to move, but he didn’t want to cause any more bad feelings between them. Hence, he thought it would be good to give the house a thorough repair. Even if he did move out, this was still his parents’ house and where he grew up. He loved each brick and each tile. Tidying it up would be a kind of early farewell.
During the next several days, Ch’in Ching swept the small courtyard, added new putty to the windows, laid the shingles again, and filled the rat holes that had long existed in the bedroom that now served as storage. Only when he could see nothing that needed to be fixed did he return to Cambridge Road.
The first thing he saw after entering the gates of the Shen manor was Lee, bent at the waist, cutting the China roses in the planter box at the entrance. The flowers knew naught of the human world and still bloomed beautifully. However, Lee seemed to be in an extremely bad mood, and he worked in a vicious manner, his scissors going snap snap snap.
“Oh, Mr. Ch’in!” Lee’s face brightened after he saw the man, and he greeted him with a nod.
“Um, is everything all right at home, sir?” Seeing the bad mood, Ch’in Ching was concerned that something had happened to his family in the country in the past few days.
“Same old, same old. Everything’s all right, but thank you for asking. The other day my younger son came into the city saying that grandson of mine’s been crying to come back to see Ch’in-keke ever since he got home….” Lee had just started, but he stopped his own talkative mouth. “You should go inside. Don’t hang out here in the sun with me.”
Ch’in Ching nodded with a smile and was about to head inside when Lee added hesitantly. “But, Mr. Ch’in, if you’re looking for the young master….” He glanced towards the house and pressed his voice low even though he could not be heard from inside. “There’s a Jap here. Second time in the past few days already. No idea what for.”
Only then did Ch’in Ching notice the extra car beyond the limestone steps by the side entrance. He walked until he could see the car, and lo and behold, there was the goddamn fried egg flag on the hood.
“You’re not going in, sir?” Lee asked after Ch’in Ching came back.
“No, I think I’ll stay out here with you and the flowers.”
Ch’in Ching was straightforward and Lee understood his intentions well. He continued talking about everyday things as he worked. About ten minutes later, Shen Liangsheng walked out with another man beside him. They could only be friends judging from the way they chatted.
“Then it’s settled, Vincent. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“Brilliant, though you really shouldn’t have come all the way here for that. Just ring me next time.”
“It’s fine. I’m not very busy these days.”
This visitor certainly was no stranger. After their first encounter, Kobayakawa had arranged a date to catch up, and they had eaten dinner several times after that. Kobayakawa was actually two years younger than Shen Liangsheng, but he had gotten his current job assisting with the army finances in Tientsin because of his father’s position in the Japanese army.
He had only arrived in Tientsin about two months ago and already had bad blood with Shigekawa Hidekazu. Everything seemed normal on the surface, but his power had been more or less stripped from him, in turn making him feel unfulfilled. Kobayakawa looked down upon Chinese people, but he took a liking to Shen Liangsheng because the Chinese man was not a boot-licker nor a distant bystander. Also, both of them had studied economics at Cambridge, so it did not take long before the two became well-acquainted.
Shen Liangsheng caught sight of Ch’in Ching as he exited the house, but he kept a straight face and saw Kobayakawa to his car. After watching the vehicle drive out the metal gates, he stayed in the same spot, looking at Ch’in Ching as though to beckon him over.
Ch’in Ching looked back at him from where he stood by the planter box. The summer sun in August was so strong that steam was rising from the ground.
He looked at him across a distance not far, though not so close either. The light was so bright that he couldn’t see the other man’s expression. His body seemed to have confused the sensations of hot and cold after such a long time under the broiling sun. It was so hot that he wanted to shiver.
It was Ch’in Ching who walked over in the end, but Shen Liangsheng started talking first in his usual tone, “Let’s talk inside.”
When they entered the lounge, Ch’in Ching thought they would talk elsewhere, but Shen Liangsheng stopped and pointed to the couch.
“Take a seat,” he said as though it were the schoolmaster’s first time here.
The truth was that nothing serious had crossed Ch’in Ching’s mind. The papers had yet to release the names of the Peace Preservation Committee, but he had heard rumours that it was essentially made up of former Peiyang people. He had thought that the Japanese were probably looking for Shen Liangsheng for this, and he wanted to have a talk with him to dissuade him from working with the Japanese.
“Ch’in Ching, I’ve never hidden anything about my family from you,” Shen Liangsheng interrupted with a seemingly unrelated statement as though he wanted the schoolmaster to deduce it himself.
But Ch’in Ching could not. His mind was stuck, and he did not reply for minutes. He wasn’t informed about the business side of things, and the taller man had never spoken about leaving the country sooner or later. He only knew about the internal conflicts between the family members. And then what? Ch’in Ching sat there pondering but found no answer.
“I have things that I want, Ch’in Ching.” Shen Liangsheng laid out the cards after seeing the other man’s dumb expression for so long, thinking there was no hope in waiting for him to find the answer himself. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t want to get into politics, but I’m going to have to work with the Japanese for the business. If you can accept it, good. If you can’t, then we’ll just leave it at that.”
Ch’in Ching only nodded in acknowledgement. Shen Liangsheng did not tell him to think about it or take a few days if he needed. The taller man reached for a cigarette from the coffee table and sat back on the couch, smoking.
The servants could tell that something was going on and left the two men alone. There was not a sound in the large, deserted lounge. The only thing alive was the smoke, gently hovering and then fading away.
Shen Liangsheng finished the cigarette and got another one. Ch’in Ching followed suit and lit it between his lips. Ch’in Ching was not a smoker, but occasionally after sex, he would join in the fun as Shen Liangsheng sat against the headboard smoking. He would crawl into the taller man’s arms and find a comfy spot to suck the smoke from the man’s mouth into his own before spitting it out. He would even ask mischievously, “Smoking’s not good for you. How are you going to thank me for helping you out?”
Although Ch’in Ching lit the cigarette, he only breathed in once in the process of lighting it and let the rest burn away on its own. Afterwards, he spoke, but it was something unrelated.
“Try not to smoke so much anymore.”
When Shen Liangsheng did not respond, he crushed the cigarette butt and continued as he got up, “Then let’s just leave it at that.”
Shen Liangsheng nodded and stood up, too. He heard Ch’in Ching say, “I’ll find a time to….” He knew it was regarding the apartment, and he cut the schoolmaster off. “It’s fine.”
“I’ll find a time to give the contract back to you,” Ch’in Ching finished his sentence while gazing at him. “Let me know if there are any other procedures with the transfer.”
“Fine.” The truth was that Shen Liangsheng knew the schoolmaster wouldn’t take the properties, so he didn’t waste his breath. The tone he took was that of a business negotiation: the conditions were agreed upon, and now it was time to go.
Ch’in Ching did not waste his breath either. He nodded, not giving a word of farewell, and walked out the door.
The lounge door was wide open, leading to a blaring whiteness outside. As Ch’in Ching stepped towards the blinding sunlight, he suddenly thought of what Shen Liangsheng had said to him the previous night about not having to return the favour. Now he understood – Shen Liangsheng had likely known that this day would come, and those words were meant as an early farewell. This way they owed each other nothing.
And they would have nothing to do with each other anymore.
Standing behind the departing man, Shen Liangsheng had little emotion on his face, let alone expressions of sadness or longing. If one were to say, it was a face so stern as to be lifeless.
Indeed, he had known this day would come. Ch’in Ching would never accept his working with the Japanese. However, it was not the case that there was no way out of the situation. Words came easily, but it was the way they were used that mattered. Ch’in Ching did not understand the workings of business very well, and it would have been possible to fool the man into thinking that Shen Liangsheng had no intentions to cooperate but that he was forced to. After the lies, he simply had to act and speak smartly to eventually win the man back.
Shen Liangsheng did have self-awareness. Selfish, stonehearted, materialistic – none of these were false accusations, but honestly, he did not care. He would admit that he cared for Ch’in Ching, but while he did, he was calculating. Even helping his godmother’s family had been preparation for the future.
However, Shen Liangsheng found that his plans changed in the four hours he had spent with the man.
Standing with him in the dark cellar, listening to the explosions from afar, he caught glimpses of the man’s expression and was reminded of the one spring day when they had gone to see the flowers by the lake. He recalled the man telling him something which he had totally forgotten due to a lack of concern. All he could remember was the man’s expression.
The peace and love then, and the excruciating pain now caused by the continuous explosions.
Shen Liangsheng was incapable of feeling such love or such pain, but he finally realized then that he could not possibly trick the man this time. If he had felt anything sincere towards the man, he would not fool him regarding this matter. He had to give him that at least.
And it wasn’t hard. It was just four words:
Easy come, easy go.
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About the fried egg reference:
The original reference in Chinese is a folk medicine that became the synonym for "scam."
A scam artist posing as a doctor
Or a dumbass who bought the fake medicine
(I'm not sure which film or show this is from sorry :p)
The most common form is a round black patch of medicine as seen in the first picture. This was extended to the Japanese flag because...well the resemblance and the fact that Japan invaded Korea and then China.
There are almost no anti-Japanese slurs in English other than "Jap" when referring to a Japanese person, so I improvised XD you must admit it looks like a sunny-side-up egg
About the soups that Shen always makes for Ch'in:
In the same way that "chicken soup" is thought to be good for sick people, various traditional soups are thought to be good for various conditions. In this chapter, specifically, Shen prepares soup that is meant to "cool" the body down since it is summertime. The concept of food having "cold" and "hot" properties is a basic concept of Chinese folk food belief.
For more information:
Chinese food therapy
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ayszhang: Another rainy week in Vancouver :) I love it!
I hope this chapter was delivered well enough to initiate a subdued sort of sorrow. It was a lot shorter than the last few chapters so I could release it this week, but the next one is long again.
On another note, Happy Easter for those who celebrate :D
Till Death Do Us Part - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.