The lights flickered when she turned on microwave. He was in the other room, lying in bed before going to work. Dawn waited past the curtains. The humidity had built all week outside. The cracks and stains of the ceiling drew him in. Black mould had begun to grow by the basin in the bedroom. That wasn’t there when they moved in. The whole block of apartments had been thrown up in weeks, and was full to capacity with the hopes of property speculators. They were one of the few to move in. The bell of the microwave brought him back.
“It won’t work anymore”. She appeared at the door. “Can you fix it?” Her attention slid from him to the phone in her hand. She resumed tapping at its screen with an even, rhythmic finger.
“I can fix it.”
Later, on the subway, a family stared at him. To the left and right of him, office workers stared at their phones, the same rhythmic tapping as Xing. The child seemed about to say something, but was too nervous. The parents tried to cajole the boy, without speaking. After another nudge, the boy said “hello”. Hello, the man replied. Overcome, the family retreated in a huddle and spoke amongst themselves. The man took up his briefcase and stood at the doors for his stop. The family recovered, and the boy risked a sentence: “Do you like China?”
The man turned to his left. None of the office workers looked up from their phones or tablets. The same constant tap tap tap as his girlfriend. It seemed to sync for a moment with the train pulling into his station. He braced himself for the crush of the platform, the summer heat compounded by his suit and tie, and the smell of garbage mixing with frying food. 23 million people waited outside the door. This was his third month of contract work, on a local wage because there was nothing else in the city that would pay his bills.
The momentum of the slowing train put him off balance. Things were meant to be better than this. Coming back for her was meant to mean something. Instead she seemed to be crumbling under his touch like a damp plaster idol.
“I like China.”
The door lights lit up and the buzzer sounded. He snatched a glance at the station name to see if he had the right stop, and stepped onto the platform. The station exploded with hustle.
Today I failed to fix a microwave, he thought to himself. The spreadsheet on his computer screen scrolled down, and he entered the sales data for the next province.
Taking a screwdriver and unscrewing 4 screws felt like the most real thing he had done in weeks. He remembered looking inside the machine and thinking about words like live, neutral, earth, circuit and fuse. Their lovemaking had the quality of sleep; sudden, ephemeral. Every day he felt further from her. Felt as if the moment was only dreamt of, and not lived. She was the worst she had been in a long time. These words did not sound complicated enough to explain to her what had happened to the machine. He knew a microwave had something called a magnetron in it. The magnet married the heat to the food. He was unsure what it truly did.
“The magnetron has fried itself.” She had gone back to bed. She wasn’t listening. She would probably be in the same place when he returned this evening. Tonight, he said, would be different. They would go out to the park. They would have a chance to talk.
The cold dumplings had sat heavily in him all morning. The database migration from one system to another had gone faster than expected, and he was unsure what to do with the rest of the day. He planned to eat separately from the local team when they broke for lunch, but he decided to leave now and avoid declining an invitation.
The main elevators were mostly empty. Repairs to the floor were taking place on every story after last week. The air conditioning had broken in the heat, and the heat had melted the carpet binding. It moved furtively underfoot.
When he got outside, he called her to let her know he loved her. The other end was quiet.
“Let’s go out tonight”, he said. While he waited for a response, he watched an old man on crutches stop in the middle of motorway to light a cigarette. Traffic moved around him. Were they oblivious or did they break the rules knowing the cost?
More silence on the other end. He hurried across the road to a noodle shop that looked promising.
“I’ll see you soon.”
The noodles were good, served in a Hui Muslim style. He preferred eating in places that were halal as there was an ethic to what was served. He thought he’d be safer from contaminated food. Then again, it was hard to say the impact anything would have in the short term. He hadn’t noticed anything change in himself at least. What about her? He loved her, he knew that much. He knew things couldn’t keep going as they were. He hoped tonight would close the gap between them. Tonight would put things back together.
On the subway home, he felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
Taijin’s face resolved itself from the crowd. His Japanese-looking features stood out. He hadn’t noticed the man yet. His lethargy gone, the man started looking for a way out. When they were younger and desperate, he and Taijin had hustled on trains, pick-pocketing drunks and foreigners. On packed trains, the man used to distract the mark or keep watch while Taijin cut pockets or fingered purses. Once or twice, they mugged bankers and businessmen, getting close with sharpened awls pressed into ribcages. All this before Taijin was broken by prison and hunger. Coming back to the city meant times were tough. The man wasn’t in shape to fight or summon the guts to talk. He’d get off and walk.
The man made his way to the door. Progress through the press of commuters was slow, as they were underground and a few minutes from the next stop. Before he could make it, the man felt pressure on his arm that stopped him. He knew he’d been caught. The man braced himself for a blow or the shock of a knife entering him, and turned. Taijin wasn’t showing his teeth, wasn’t smiling or snarling.
“Hey, long time no see.”
They spoke the hometown dialect so anyone listening would lose interest. Just two old friends catching up.
“You busy these days?”
“Yeah, working. And you?”
He looked rough, like he’d been working nights and drinking days. He imagined he was pulling security at a karaoke bar. What Taijin thought of him was clear.
“Look at you. Nice job, getting fatter, and you’re still with Xing?”
Taijin arranged his features into a mask of honesty and dependence.
“Can you spot me money until I get paid at the week end? I can pay you back, since you have the bigger job. You owe me.”
“How much do you need?”
“500.” Three day’s wages. A weeks’ food.
The next stop was coming up. If the man got off, Taijin would follow until he got what he needed. The man could run for a few hundred meters, but didn’t doubt Taijin would tail him until he got home. The man wanted to stay at fingertips length from the past. Taijin was close now. The man reached for his wallet. He was shaky. He’d give 500 before Taijin took 5000 himself.
Taijin took the 500 and folded it neatly into his sports jacket.
“And give me your number too. We should get together soon. Make some business happen.”
Taijin called the number and made sure the man picked up. The train was pulling into the station.
“Keep in touch.”
With his back to the door, they shook hands.
“You sure this is your stop?” Taijin hadn’t let go.
“This is my stop. I’d like to stay, but I have to get home.”
A crowd had begun to gather around the two. A mother pulled her child away from the doors and the circle surrounding the two. Some drew back from the tension, others pressed in. The train stopped, and the doors opened. The two hung there for a moment, and the passengers didn’t try to exit. A security guard on the platform leaned forward to see what the delay was.
“See you around. See you real soon.” Taijin let go and the man swam in the crowd to the streets below.
The man took out the phone on the walk home and dropped it into the canal.
The sun began to set, pushing fingers of light between the blocks of offices and apartments.
“I walked home. Sorry about the delay.”
She hadn’t gotten out of bed yet. She tapped on her phone playing the happy farm game.
“Let’s go out to the park tonight and get food on the way. I want to talk with you.”
“What’s wrong with here? We can talk here.”
“The microwave is broken. There isn’t any food in the house. Could you get dressed please?”
She didn’t move.
The man returned to the kitchenette. He put his briefcase on the chair. He poured himself a glass of water from a bottle in the fridge. He drank it immediately, refilled it, and put it on the table. Condensation formed on the sides of the glass, and the drops began to run together, racing to the bottom. The screwdriver was still on the table where he left it that morning. He gripped its handle and checked its balance like a fencer. There are so many things I want to protect. Water had pooled around the base of the glass. The man heard footsteps coming from the bedroom. He put the screwdriver back on the table.
She was wearing a summer dress with a straw hat. The hat had a blue ribbon tied around it, which she had draped over the brim of the hat. She tried to smile, her hands across her body. The man reached for her and she did not pull away. Brushing her arm from the shoulder down, the man rose from the chair, picked up his keys, and turned off the lights. The city below caressed the room with red. The man watched her as she left into the light of the corridor, weighed her up. He followed her out to the elevator. He didn’t know what time it was.
In the park, there was a copse of trees. The park was ringed with buildings like the fixtures of an emerald ring. There they sat under the tree. She near him, him near the tree. No stars out tonight. The man had not seen stars for some time. Beneath the earth of the tree, a child had buried a pink circular token. The token had been eroded to the surface over time. The man sat on the roots of the tree, the counter between his legs. The lake gave a basic chemical smell from where they sat. A gentle slope ran down to the concrete bank. Inside the park echoed the shouts of unseen others. Neither of them had spoken for a while. She hugged her knees, with the brim of her hat low. Their umbrella rested against the tree.
“Do you want to go first?”
He leaned back into the slope. In the distance, across the water, dozens of pensioners did tai qi or vigorously walked backwards. An old man cycled a bike trailing a welded cart full of plastic waste. He imagined the money would buy something nice for the old man’s grandchild. The man sat up and then rose to his feet, staring over the slope rolling down to the lake. His backside was damp from the rich soil.
“Parks are better like this. Having everything under control.”
He turned his back on her.
“I’m pretty sure I’m not a horrible person. At least, I don’t want to think I am. ”
Xing had begun to open her handbag, and she rooted around for her phone.
“You worry too much. You always have.”
She turned over, holding the phone like a relic. Still silent. Insights into her came only in retrospect, the tapping on the phone like rosary, every sigh from each of them embraced by the city. Everything lead to this. Turning, he took the phone from her hands and flung it into the lake. It smashed on the concrete lip of the pool. Two months’ salary gone. The case smashed, and components littered the park. The screen hung in place by the phone, still showing the happy farm . He couldn’t see anything that animated the phone. He shook his head as if the outburst were embarrassing. Then, sat down again on the slope.
She was silent for a long time. Somewhere in a park, glass broke. An ambulance siren made its way through the city. Flashing lights, but no bombs. Smoke, but no fires. Not even rain or words. The tai chi group began to wrap up across the water.
“I wanted to say something”, she began, “and every time, it doesn’t come out”. She touched her hand to her chest like a bird settling on snow. “It’s in here, and nothing’s changed. But when I look back on everything that’s happened, here doesn’t feel like here anymore. I was hoping for more in my life, but now…”
She shifted position, and looked into the man’s eyes.
“It’s like a drunken conversation – it doesn’t make sense. And all our conversations… it’s something I’m realising now. I don’t know if I can go on like this. But maybe talking helps.”
“I think talking helps too.”
She leaned into him.
“This is the good life, but it doesn’t feel like it should.” He made to embrace her. Her phone began to ring in the distance, shaking itself apart until it died. She began to weep. Her tears soaked through his shirt, hot against his skin even then.