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Till Death Do Us Part chapter 21
Shen Liangsheng had not seen Ch’in Ching for more than a month since he last left, and he did not go looking for the schoolmaster, either. He wanted to get the man back but could tell that it would not be an easy task persuading him. Thus, he thought it would be best to sort out his own feelings and then figure out what he wanted to do with the man.
Shen Liangsheng thought Ch’in Ching had been so uncooperative because of his relationship with the Japanese, and this was not an unsolvable problem. His father was dead which meant that Shen Liangsheng no longer had to be mindful of the will nor to prove to anyone he was capable of shouldering the family estate. Should worst come to worst, he would withdraw the investment from the joint-venture factory with the Japanese, and that would be the end of that. After all, there would always be more money to make. Firstly, Shen Liangsheng did not want to stay in China for the long term, so the factories had to go sooner or later. Secondly, the Japanese were no longer satisfied with the joint venture and their share of the profits. Kobayakawa had been pressuring Shen Liangsheng on the business side of things after failing to convince the man to join politics, and Shen Liangsheng had grown tired of this.
Shen Liangsheng was willing to give up some monetary benefit in order to get the man back because Ch’in Ching was worth it to him. The question then became whether or not to take the man with him when he left the country. Ever since he finished his brother, Shen Liangsheng had formed solid plans to move abroad deciding to give himself a year or so to wrap things up here, but he was not sure what to do with Ch’in Ching.
If he decided not to take Ch’in Ching along and left the man after getting back together for a year or so, he also thought that “despicable” would be too benign a word to describe his actions. However, if he were to bring Ch’in Ching with him….
Being completely honest with himself, Shen Liangsheng knew he cared deeply for the man now and wished very much to take him along, but he could not guarantee that his feelings would last.
Now that his father was gone there was no one rushing him to get married, and he was not anxious to do so, either. During the months of his father’s illness, Shen Liangsheng recalled a lot of the past, his mother’s pain and sorrows that he witnessed. Upon reflection, he finally realized that he did not want to visit the same suffering upon his partner. He thought he should treat Ch’in Ching well if they were to get back together. He did not plan to get married to some woman while being with the man, but he also knew this decision was made only because he still had feelings for the man.
But how long would these feelings last? Two years? Five? Ten? Were he to bring this man to a foreign land because of his feelings in the present moment, and then revert to his “easy come, easy go” mentality because these feelings had dissipated and he wanted to instead get married and have children…. He would really have to be a monster to do such a thing.
Seeing the affection in Ch’in Ching’s eyes, Shen Liangsheng immediately had the urge to get back together. However, after that initial reaction, he thought about it carefully and found himself in a rare dilemma. Certainly, he was not a man with much conscience, but what little he had was directed towards Ch’in Ching. He remained mired in these deliberations, and soon March came around.
Ch’in Ching had kept the sale of his house a secret from Hsiao-Liu. Only when the sale was settled in early March and he could stall no longer did he tell his friend. He dared not say that it was to repay Shen Liangsheng or that he was going to Shanpei. In the end, he lied that he simply was going to teach in another place.
“What in the world are you talking about?!” Hsiao-Liu was startled. “What’s wrong with teaching here at home? The job’s the same anywhere.”
Ch’in Ching did not respond. He put on a passive attitude and an expression that said ‘Whatever you say. I’ve already decided.’
“All right, even so….” Hsiao-Liu was pounding the table as though he were pounding on Ch’in Ching’s head to see what was going on in that brain of his. “Even if you’re leaving, you didn’t have to sell the house! How could you just sell the house your parents left behind? Plus, aren’t you gonna come back? Where are you gonna live then?”
“With you and your wife, of course,” Ch’in Ching replied with an obnoxious snigger.
“No way in hell!” Hsiao-Liu cussed angrily. Then, when the initial anger settled, the wheels in his brain started turning again. He realized Ch’in Ching was not one to act so rashly. There must have been another reason for his friend to sell the house. He then remembered his incident, and it immediately became clear to him.
Since he had suspicions, he became determined to get to the bottom of this. Ch’in Ching put him off with nonsense for a while, but seeing that his friend was about to give him a beating if he stalled any longer, he confessed. “It’s to pay him back, too.”
“…’cause of me?”
“Not just because of you,” Ch’in Ching lied so he would not feel bad. “I already owed him some from when we were together. I’m just trying to pay back as much as I can.”
Hsiao-Liu naturally did not buy this. Minutes ago he had wanted to beat his friend, but this time he gave himself a slap across the face. He could not apologize – it’s not as though ‘sorry’ would fix anything – so he poured all his strength into this slap. His cheek immediately reddened, showing five bloody strikes.
“My goodness!” Ch’in Ching grabbed his friend’s arm. He realized he could not fool around anymore and told Hsiao-Liu honestly, “When I said another place, I meant Shanpei, you know…. Anyway, I was planning to sell the house even if you hadn’t gotten into trouble. Just believe me this one time, please?”
It was around dusk, and the lights were not on. Hsiao-Liu sat with Ch’in Ching in the dimming room for some time before breaking the silence with a hoarse voice.
“Are you comin’ back?”
“Yeah,” Ch’in Ching gave his word with a nod. “I’ll come back when we win the war.
“And don’t you keep thinking about the money,” he continued when his friend stayed speechless. “That’s what friends are for. Plus, you owing me is better than me owing him, right?
“You just stay here and run that teahouse of yours. Hurry up and find yourself a wife so I can play with my godsons when I come back.” Ch’in Ching rubbed his friend’s head. “A goddaughter would be good, too. Boys are too naughty. Girls are better.”
Unable to hold his tears any longer, Hsiao-Liu began sobbing with his head down and snot running down his face. Ch’in Ching thought it would be better to let his friend cry now since it was bound to happen anyway. This way the farewell later would be easier, so he sat by the shorter man as he cried. Finally, he fetched a clean handkerchief and comforted him, even calling him by his baby name. “Don’t cry, Hsiao-Pao. I’m coming back.”
The truth was that Ch’in Ching himself did not know if he even could come back, but no matter where he lived or where he died, it was enough having the memories of his home in his heart.
After handing over the keys to the new owners, Ch’in Ching picked a Sunday morning to visit the Shen manor. It was ten o’clock, and Shen Liangsheng was home for once. Hearing the servant’s report that Mr. Ch’in was here, he headed towards the lounge feeling a bit nervous because he had not yet made up his mind.
The temperature had risen a bit by mid-March. Ch’in Ching was wearing a dark blue lined robe and a pair of black-framed glasses. He flashed a smile at Shen Liangsheng when the man entered, and the latter felt a little disoriented – he was suddenly reminded of the spring day when they had first met, Ch’in Ching dressed in the same attire.
Amongst a crowd of people, he had looked up and smiled at him, and then three years went by.
“Shen Liangsheng,” Ch’in Ching greeted him with a smile. Without further ado, he passed over the money he had received for the house. He was the one giving, yet he appeared to be embarrassed. “I don’t even know if it’s enough…. Well, I don’t have any more anyway. You’ll just have to make do.”
Ch’in Ching’s words sounded lighthearted, but Shen Liangsheng did not feel that way at all. The taller man frowned and replied a bit sternly, “Take this money back to where it came from, and don’t make me repeat myself.”
Ch’in Ching did not seem to mind this attitude and only smiled again as he placed the money on the coffee table. He saw Shen Liangsheng about to speak and interrupted, “I didn’t come just for this. It’s also to say goodbye.”
Shen Liangsheng froze on the spot and forgot everything he was about to say.
“I’m going to teach in another part of the country….” Ch’in Ching was obviously not going to tell the man where exactly, so he picked his words wisely, “and I probably won’t get to see you again. You–”
“Ch’in Ching, I….” It was only then that Shen Liangsheng snapped back to reality. His hand shot forth to grab the schoolmaster’s hand. He had a thousand things he wanted to say, but he did not know where to start. All he could manage was to hold onto the man’s hand tightly while urgency began to show through his face.
“I’m not leaving right now, but probably in the fall.” Ch’in Ching did not pull his hand away but placed his other hand on top of that of Shen Liangsheng. He gave the man’s hand a squeeze. “I’m just here to say goodbye beforehand. Take care of yourself from now on.”
Shen Liangsheng lost the strength in his hands after being squeezed and could only watch as the other man slid his hands back. With an expression that almost seemed helpless, he looked into the man’s eyes and merely repeated his previous utterance. “Ch’in Ching, I….”
“Au revoir, Shen Liangsheng.” Ch’in Ching had known that the other man would have difficulty accepting the sudden announcement, but he also knew that even the Gordian knot could not stand up to a quick swing of the sword. He took a resolute step back and repeated, “Take care now. Au revoir.”
Without any delay, Ch’in Ching turned around and walked out the front door.
As Shen Liangsheng watched him go, the last bit of his inherent pride kept him from stopping Ch’in Ching. His mind went blank, and the thousands of words seemed to slip through his fingers like running water, never to be recovered.
It was only several hours later that he came back to himself. He jumped to his feet and headed out the door, only to turn back to fetch the money Ch’in Ching had left behind before rushing to Nanshih in his car. He had finally come to a conclusion – regardless of the future, he had to tell the man one thing, for the thousands of words boiled down to a mere seven.
“Ch’in Ching, I love you. Don’t leave.”
It was suppertime when Shen Liangsheng reached Nanshih, and smoke was drifting out from the chimney. A bunch of kids raced past Shen Liangsheng. They were taking the opportunity to play some more since their parents had not called them home for supper yet.
Shen Liangsheng walked briskly to Ch’in Ching’s house and rapped on the gates. They swung open soon after, and he parted his lips to call the man’s name only to see a woman standing at the gates. He stared at the stranger for a second before speaking, “I’m looking for Ch’in Ching.”
“Ch’in Ching?” The woman was confused for a second, too. “…Oh, you mean Mr. Ch’in. He doesn’t live here no more. If yer lookin’ for him…. Hang on a second.”
Shen Liangsheng stood at the entrance, watching the woman step into the yard and shout, “Hey, ya know where the fellow who sold us the house lives? Somebody’s here lookin’ for him.”
“How should I know? Who’s lookin’ for him?”
“I don’t know. He just….”
The couple had only exchanged a few words, but when she looked back, there was no one at the entrance. She grumbled as she shut the gate again, “At least tell us yer leaving.”
Shen Liangsheng walked back out of the hut’ong. The kids from earlier were running back, and he stepped to the side to let them pass.
He sold the house. He must be serious about leaving.
He must be serious.
As he reached this realization in his mind, strength seemed to seep out of his body.
He was only able to come on account of that rush of adrenaline. However, when he saw a stranger standing behind the familiar gates, the rush disappeared, leaving him rather drained.
Shen Liangsheng did not retrieve his car and instead walked to the Liu’s Teahouse. Business was not as good as before, and Hsiao-Liu had had to fire a worker and work in the front himself.
“Young Master Shen” Hsiao-Liu spotted the businessman as soon as he had stepped in and quickly approached, thinking the man was here for his friend. “Ch’in Ching–”
“Isn’t here. I know.” Shen Liangsheng finished the sentence calmly as he gave Ch’in Ching’s money to the shorter man. “You give this back to him and tell him I don’t want it, and don’t try to give it to me again.”
“Oh, all right….” Hsiao-Liu scratched his head as he took the money. He thought it would be rude not to serve him since this man had done him a huge favour. “How about you join us tonight if you’re free? About my–”
“It’s fine,” Shen Liangsheng interrupted. “I was just on my way out.”
Yet, he did not move an inch. He stayed staring at the stage at the front of the teahouse.
It was too early for a performance, and the stage was empty. There were not many patrons, but Shen Liangsheng could hear the bustling crowd and laughter, followed by applause and cheering.
He saw the teahouse packed to the brim with customers. There were not enough seats, and some were standing while some were sitting on their own folding stools.
The performer on stage was wearing a long robe and held a fan in hand. His solo crosstalk was engaging and sounded a bit like one of those story-tellers in the old days with just the right rhythm and pace.
There was a pot of lukewarm jasmine tea. It was not top-quality but was especially fragrant.
Hsiao-Liu stood with Shen Liangsheng while the latter stared at the empty stage in silence. He had been against Ch’in Ching getting involved with this man, but looking at the man’s profile now, he felt a bit sorry.
“Sir…” He started hesitantly. “How about um…. Is there anything you’d like me to pass on to him?”
“…No.” Shen Liangsheng lowered his gaze and shook his head before repeating his answer. “No, there isn’t.”
Then he turned around and left.
Hsiao-Liu lifted up the curtains for him and watched the man until he had gone into the distance.
The man’s silhouette was definitely not hunched, nor was it lonesome, but for some reason, it seemed pitiful.
He had nothing to say to the man but went to see him one day. He asked Chou to find Ch’in Ching’s new address through discreet methods, and then one night he drove over. He parked on a nearby street and sat alone in the car for hours.
He went to see him, not because he really wanted to meet him, but because he merely wanted to be somewhere near him – for just one night, just this once.
After numerous cigarettes, the air inside became hazy. Shen Liangsheng rolled down the window, letting in a bit of the evening breeze.
The house that Ch’in Ching was renting was near the Hai Ho. Shen Liangsheng listened to the overnight freight boats sailing up and down the river, the sound of their horns drifting, closer and then farther, into the car along with the wind.
That night, Shen Liangsheng had a dream after going to bed.
It was summertime in the dream. He was sitting with Ch’in Ching on the couch in the lounge; it seemed to be the scene of their first farewell.
However, what he said were the words he could not say the second time around….
“Ch’in Ching, I love you. Don’t leave.”
“But Shen Liangsheng,” the Ch’in Ching in his dream retorted as though surprised, wearing a peculiar expression. “Why would I want that?”
He didn’t know how to answer and, indeed, felt there was nothing more to be said.
Oh, so that’s not what he wanted.
But if his heart was not what the man wanted, then he really had nothing else to give.
The sky was still dark when he awoke from the dream. Shen Liangsheng lay in the dark, feeling a little ridiculous.
What he found laughable was not the dream but rather the fact that he was a naïve fool still wet behind the ears.
He had finally recognized his own implicit belief. See, the thought that they would be separated for good never even occurred to him after he parted ways with Ch’in Ching.
Being the childish idiot that he was, he had thought of the year without the man as some sort of cold war. Each was merely waiting for the other to give in first, and they would get back together after making some compromises.
He had thought that their feelings were mutual, but he only came to the painful realization after the dream that, in fact, Ch’in Ching did not like him anymore.
Perhaps he had already seen it on the day of their second farewell but chose to turn a blind eye, to deny the truth, which he was able to do until he had the dream – as he opened his eyes, his dream ended, too.
The man no longer cared for him, so they could not be together again.
End of story.
Shen Liangsheng felt like laughing, so he did. Then, he wept for the first time in a while.
A really long while, wasn’t it? Twenty years? Perhaps longer.
He let the tears fall and dry on his face, and he heard Ch’in Ching saying au revoir.
Come to think of it, the first time the man said farewell, he had not actually said au revoir.
The man had not said au revoir, but it felt like they would see each other again.
This time the man did say it, and Shen Liangsheng knew they would not see each other again.
So be it. He couldn’t make up his mind, so the man did it for him. That was fine, too.
If the man could forget him, then he could, too.
As he lay in the dark, Shen Liangsheng told himself:
You must forget him before you turn thirty.
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Till Death Do Us Part - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.