Shanghai Life and Death(109)

Should I walk across the street again to knock on the door of the sports association and go in to investigate? I asked myself several times, but could not make a decision. A little girl came around the corner on a three-wheeled bicycle, with her mother following behind her. As she sped up, her mother called out, “Slow down! Watch out!” But the little girl pedaled even faster. Her dark eyes looked backward at her mother. They passed in front of me and disappeared behind a group of bushes.

As I left the park and walked toward the bus stop, I saw Manning everywhere with both eyes, every young woman and every little girl on the road looking like my daughter. A stabbing pain in my heart made me feel more alone and helpless than I had ever felt in prison. The bus stop was packed with people, and a car drove past the stop without stopping. I mustered up the courage to turn resolutely to the sidewalk and cross the street. At the entrance to the narrow alley next to the sports association, there was a young woman sitting on a low stool knitting wool.

“Do you live here?” I asked her.

She nodded and continued knotting her yarn. Some people walked by on the sidewalk here, but didn’t look in my direction. I noticed that the houses were built against the wall of the sports association building, taking up half the area of the narrow alley.

“Are you looking for someone?” The young woman asked me, looking up.

“I’m from Beijing.” I lied, “I heard that in 1967 a young actor from the Shanghai Film Studio committed suicide by jumping out of a window in this building. Did you ever hear about it?” I pointed to the Sports Association building behind her.

She looked up and shook her head: “No. In 1967 was the second year after the Cultural Revolution began, right? At that time, the building was being repaired and there was scaffolding on all sides to repair the house. I remember this very well, because we moved here shortly before the Cultural Revolution began. Those workers made a mess of this narrow strip and then left without finishing it.”

“Then I was mistaken.” I said and quickly left. What she said was a living fact, so I could be sure that my daughter had never committed suicide.

I may have taken a wrong turn on the Nanjing Road, because after a while I found myself walking farther from home than I had been. A bus came by, and I got on it. After a bumpy and uneven ride, I was back at my own home. When I opened the front door, I found two bicycles parked in the garden and heard, in the room downstairs, someone talking.

Auntie saw me in the hallway and said that the downstairs house had been assigned to a family named Zhu. She also told me something about the Zhu family, but I didn’t bother to listen to her as I pondered my new discovery on Nanjing Road.

My daughter’s death was still a mystery, but I had clearer evidence than I had in the past. It was beyond dispute that she had been interrogated by the rebels and had died at their hands. If she had been murdered and not committed suicide, then, in any case, I would find her killer and see if he had been convicted. In China, murderers are sentenced to death. After that I no longer saw Man Ping in my mind’s eye, lying in the dim light of an early summer morning in June on the still sparsely populated Nanjing Road. In my dreams or when I was alone, I always saw her white face and her lifeless appearance. I also heard her crying and roaring. I swore to God that I would avenge Man Ping.

After a few days the Zhu family moved in. I was considering whether I should go downstairs to greet them and say some polite words to welcome them. But Mrs. Zhu came up to see me first, and she was about my age. Her dyed hair was neatly combed, held by a fake tortoiseshell comb, and she had a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. I gave her a seat, the aunt sent up a cup of tea and a dish with cigarette ash.

“My daughter Yan and your daughter are classmates, they are good friends.” She said enthusiastically.

“Does your daughter live with you in Shanghai?”

“Yan is my eldest daughter. She works in the Beijing PLA Cultural Troupe. Because my husband was a bourgeois, when the Red Guards came to raid the house, we were swept out and lived in a car room. Can you imagine our family of seven living in just one car room? We had to walk two hundred meters to get water and go to the toilet. The Red Guards made me sweep the roads and my husband was beaten and criticized many times. We were just a small bourgeoisie with no reputation, and we didn’t have much money. It was just that my husband had opened a workshop for making snow cream in the early days of the liberation.” She looked nervous as she spoke and kept inhaling her cigarette.

“Your daughter works in the army, so you should be taken care of. Have you earned the title of ‘honorable family,'” I asked her. Families with children in the army were called “families of honor” and were given special rations and privileges by the Communist Party.

“The Red Guards denied all this, but now they recognize it again. Our composition has been restored and we have been assigned a house here.”

“I hope you will feel good about moving in here.” I said politely.

She took my hand and said, “I’m always talking about myself. What happened to you was worse than what happened to us. You were sent to the guardhouse, and your beautiful daughter died. When I learned of Man Ping’s death, I wrote to tell my daughter in Beijing. How sad we all are!”

I didn’t want to talk to her about Man-ping, let alone tell her about what happened to me, so I didn’t say anything.

She smiled and snapped out the end of her cigarette in the dish, then lit another one, took a deep drag, then exhaled a puff of smoke and said, “I came up here to talk to you about the electricity bill. I always like to make everything clear beforehand, don’t you think? This way there will be no misunderstanding in the future. My son-in-law is an electrician and he has found out that there is only one meter in this house. Do you agree that we should split the electricity bill equally between the two families, since you live on one floor and we also live on the other.”

Before I could answer her, perhaps my aunt had overheard our conversation in the hallway outside the door, when she came in and said, “Aye! Master Zhu, we have to share equally according to the number of people living in each household. There are seven of you and only two of us, so we will divide the electricity bill into nine parts, and you will pay seven and we will pay two.”

“No, although there are seven of us, we don’t take up much room space. The electricity bill should be divided right.” Mrs. Zhu was annoyed with her aunt.

“There are many of you, and of course there are many of you lights, so it is unreasonable to share equally.” Auntie argued with her.

I came out to mediate. “Why don’t we go and find out how the other neighbors are divided. I’m going to see Lu Ying, who is the group leader and lives with several families. Let’s go ask her.”

“That’s not right either. Except for you, every family is allocated the same living area. You are allocated a larger area than others. If your two houses are allocated to two families, then six or seven people will have to live here too.” Mrs. Zhu said excitedly.

She snapped out her cigarette in the saucer and stood up. “I’ll let my husband come and talk to you.” She left the room and went downstairs, muttering to herself, without waiting for me to answer whether she would like to see her husband.