The Woman Who Lost China by Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang

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Three gunshots pierced the silence of the night. Manying jerked out of her slumber. Again they were shooting Communist Fifth Columnists in the coal yard. She groped for the matches and oil lamp. There had been no power since lunchtime and it was past nine in the evening. The cloth wick was too long. The flame writhed and smoked, filling the room with confused shadows. She wound the wick down and replaced the glass chimney, taming the flame. Tiptoeing across the room she checked her four-month-old son, asleep in his cradle in the corner. His breathing was heavy and slow, that of an old man. How could she possibly divine the weave of the threads of his fate? Returning to her chair, she sat in the grimy, orange light and waited.

Should she stay in Nanjing or should she leave? Communists were massing north of the Yangtze River, or so they said. Surely the capital city could not fall to those bandits? But bandits had ended dynasties before and even the most patriotic of her friends appeared to have decided the game was up and had left for Shanghai at the beginning of that year, 1949. Her best friend, Mei Ren, had tried to persuade her to leave with her family, but the regiment of Manying’s husband was reported lost at the Battle of Huai Hai. She had not seen him since the previous spring when he had left on an anti-communist campaign, and there had been no news since before the birth of their son. She would not leave without her husband.
All through the winter and now the spring as the shuffling exodus from Nanjing continued, she did as she had done all her married life; wait.

Once again the flame in the oil lamp began to flicker in distress, and the coterie of ghosts returned to mock her from the top of the cupboard, and the nook by the door. She picked up the lamp, weighing it in her hand. As she suspected, not enough oil. Damn the maid. Was there anyone left she could trust?

Taking a key from her pocket, she opened a wooden chest where she kept emergency supplies out of reach of the servants. By the light of a weak electric torch she emptied the last of the oil into the lamp. It was heaven-knows-what kind of vegetable oil, and it filled the room with an acrid smoke before eventually settling into a yellow flame. It was enough to banish the lonely ghosts of doubt, at least for a while.

Suddenly she heard the sound of a car coming down the lane; the secretive, grinding nighttime purr that had become all too familiar in recent months. It was wise not to ask questions. Blowing out the lamp, she tiptoed to the window and opened the creaking shutter only an inch. 

The shadow of an American jeep rested on the corner, its nearside wheels up on the pavement. A man jumped out and walked towards her along the farside of the street. The jeep bumped backwards out of the lane and drove off down the main road. 

The man moved slowly in and out of the shadows, stopping for a time every few paces. As he got closer Manying saw that he was wearing an officer's hat. Suddenly he was coming straight towards her, out of the blackness, crossing the street. She lost sight of him for a few seconds. He was standing directly beneath her window. He took a step backwards and flashed a torch light up to her window–he must have seen her. In that instant he removed his hat and turned the torch light on himself just long enough for her to identify him, then turned it off and disappeared into the shadows. 

Him! Not her husband, but him! 

She felt as if the blood were draining out of her legs. Was it really seven years since that night in the restaurant when he had said those things? She hated him. She could not bear to think of his home life–the sweat, the smell of faeces, blood and cooking oil. Angry words, his index finger held in the chubby fist of a smiling baby, tired exchanges, grunts, coughs and above all the warmth of the other who was always there. It was irrational, she knew, for she had married first. But she could not help herself.

Her heart thumping, she grabbed the electric torch from the table and went downstairs. Afraid the servants might hear she slipped off her slippers, abandoning them as untidy footprints. Her breath came short and fast, her legs trembled as she tiptoed into the hallway. 

There was no window in the door. She put her head flat against the hard, cracked wood and whispered his name.

"It’s me. Quick! Let me in!" came the reply.

He was through the door. She was leading him towards the staircase, her finger over his lips. But he stopped and put down the black cardboard suitcase he carried. Like a well brought up child he sat on the bottom of the stairs, untied his white leather spats and removed his boots.

They stood on the far side of the living room in front of the shuttered windows so as not to wake the baby. By torchlight, she scanned his face, reading the lines, filling in the blanks, and making sense of the lost years. His cheeks had shrunk inwards, making him look thinner than he really was. His once fine fingers were knobbled with the soft, red stumps of old calluses, and there were long white scars on the back of his hands. His hair, still black, was receding in gentle arcs from the corners of his forehead. The boyish enthusiasm was gone, replaced by the stiff authority of a much older man. He did not take his eyes from her, and she knew from the morning mirror that she too had changed. Her face was rounder, with the beginnings of sagging around the jaw line. Her once smiling lips now pursed determinedly downwards, and her svelte figure had swollen gently with the curves of motherhood. But it did not matter. In him, she saw all that was lost and gone in herself; great spaces of things unknown that needed no words, knew nothing, yet everything.

"Manying, you must leave Nanjing before morning. There’s a train leaving at three a.m. I can get you and the baby on it."

"Why did you come?" Manying was bewildered.

"Mei Ren." He was still slightly out of breath. "Your friend Mei Ren asked me–if things looked bad… Before she left, she was worried about you." He half cocked an eyebrow.

"I might have known!”

"Manying, you must pack. The jeep will come back and pick us up in a couple of hours. You cannot stay in Nanjing." 

"I can't leave without my husband."

"For God's sake!" He grabbed her by the shoulders and she was shocked by his familiarity and the ferocity of his grip. "Acting President Li had meetings with senior generals today. We can't hold the city. The communists are crossing the Yangtze now, right now!" She stared at him in disbelief. "China is lost. We Nationalists no longer deserve the Mandate of Heaven. You have to get out, now! Tonight, or it will be too late.” 

"I can't go without my husband," she repeated. 

Realising that he was not getting through to her, he loosened his grip.

"Little Lamb, Little Lamb! Always so good and kind. But you can't stay. The Communist bandits are going to win. Don’t you see? Already they’re prosecuting men from the rank of General upwards as war criminals. They will shoot your husband and God knows what will happen to you and the boy."

There was a long silence. She plumbed the depths of his eyes for the truth. 

"Before he left, my husband told me that if worst came to the worst, I should go to his brother in Hong Kong. He has an optician's shop there. I have never met him, but I have an address." She spoke slowly, as if awakening from a long sleep. He nodded. 

"Then that is what you must do. Your husband will know where to find you."

A lone tear escaped from the corner of Manying's right eye, rolling down her cheek. Instinctively he reached out and caught it with his finger. With this tiny gesture, the frayed ropes of restraint that had been holding them apart all these years were broken. His mouth was on hers. Gasping, sucking, he fought past her tongue. Her teeth cut his lips in reply. His fingers scratched hopelessly at the buttons of her blouse in their tight cotton loops. Impatient, he cupped her breasts in his hands, biting at them through the material. Burying herself in his warm, pulsing neck she pulled at the buttons of his jacket. It slipped onto the floor and she felt him guiding her hand back to the stubborn buttons of her own blouse. He raised his head to watch as slowly, deliberately, the white cotton fell away, revealing one small pert brown nipple. Groaning, he put his mouth to it, and she cradled him to her. 

When he picked her up and carried her to the bedroom, she did not resist. The threads of their fate had always been thus entwined. 

They lay in the dark, a limp tangle of legs and arms, he on top of her. Her hand pressed him down into her on the small of his back. She did not want him to withdraw, for when he did she knew that it would be the end and that she would have forever lost part of herself. 

"I never meant it to be like this," he whispered. “I always meant to do my duty to your brother and look after you. Now I have betrayed you both." He felt her tears on his cheek. 

"Hush,” she said stroking his hair with her hand. "I know. I know everything."
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