A story by Tong Su, translated from the Chinese by Xiaoming Shan & Min Liu
The man called Old Qi was in fact quite young, but Mr. and Mrs. Meng called him Old Qi though they knew he was younger than they were, a consequence of what people often referred to as the force of habit. Habits are invariably formed under specific circumstances and meant to last forever even if sometimes circumstances change. It sounds very unnatural whenever people fail to stick to a habit. Understandably, Old Qi and Mr. Meng seemed to be terribly shocked when Meng’s wife, Ning Zhu, asked Young Qi—instead of the habitual “Old Qi”—what time is it now? They turned abruptly in the direction of the door where Ning Zhu was standing. Varying amounts of fear were detectable in their eyes. This embarrassed Ning Zhu very much.
Our wall clock has stopped, Ning Zhu said haltingly. You’re wearing a watch, Old Qi, aren’t you?
Old Qi smiled, soundlessly, and cast a glimpse at his wrist. Nine o’clock now, time for me to leave. He stood up. In a hurry, his knee bumped the tea table and his elbow nearly knocked over a cup, causing a great confusion. Old Qi took the cup and handed it to Mr. Meng and made a face to the couple, saying, Time for me to leave and you two go rest.
No hurry, please stay for a while. A trace of guilt was perceptible on Ning Zhu’s face. She stood in the doorway and said, Please do not misunderstand us. Our wall clock is broken. It has been broken for half a month. I asked Meng to repair it, but he never does. See, how lazy he is.
I really should go. It’s already nine o’clock, said Old Qi. I’ll have a busy day tomorrow.
Without the clock, we have no way to know the time at home. My watch was left at my aunt’s home, Ning Zhu explained. Once she started, she was almost unstoppable. And Meng can never find his watch. It’s rare that a person can be as forgetful as he is. I have no idea how many watches he has bought. He lost all of them!
Old Qi had already reached the doorway. Suddenly, he swirled around, saying, Meng, fetch me your wall clock.
What? Meng asked, uncomprehending.
It is broken, right? asked Old Qi. My younger brother can fix it. Don’t take it to the watch store. Their charges are ridiculous and they will replace the good parts with the bad ones. Leave it to me. You don’t need to spend a penny on it and I guarantee that your clock will work for at least two more years after it is fixed.
No bother. Meng looked up at the clock on the wall. You can’t help us all the time. Besides, chances are the battery is fake or shoddy.
Come on. Just get me the clock.
Meng looked at Ning Zhu, but she averted his eyes. He went around and took a chair. Standing on the chair, he unhooked the clock.
Hugging the clock, Old Qi went out. Without any streetlights, it was pitch-dark outside. The couple went outside, too, to see off Old Qi, but what they could see was no more than the flickering whiteness of his shirt. Old Qi most probably had put the clock in the iron-wire basket of his bike, for they heard it rocking in the basket. In the darkness, Old Qi bestrode his bike and was heard saying, Saturday, I will be back on Saturday, with the clock.
Every day, countless people took trains and became acquainted with each other but few of them became real friends. Hastily, they met and parted. At the time of arrival, they didn’t even have the time to bid farewell to each other and they totally forgot each other in an hour or so. However, a three-hour train trip had brought Meng a life-long friend. In his wildest imagination, he would never expect a man chitchatting with him on the train to become one of his best friends.
Old Qi was such a friend. Meng couldn’t remember what they had talked about in the train. In his vague memory, they had talked about UFO, stocks and AIDS. They had a good time talking with each other. With limitless topics, they always had something to talk about, a perfect way to kill time in the train. They stayed together for three hours and time flew fast. They nodded to say goodbye to each other on the platform. Meng was a little puzzled when Old Qi did not turn around and go away. Was it because of his packages? He had two travel bags and a carton. He hauled one bag on his shoulder and was about to grab the other one and the carton with his left and right hand respectively. There wasn’t any problem. But after he got hold of the bag, someone grabbed his carton before he did. Meng saw his neighbor in the train smiling amiably to him. He said, I will take one for you. Don’t you live at New Station Village? It is just several steps away. Let me take this one there for you. Meng had tried to refuse him, but in the end, after much pushing and shoving, he had to oblige him, because Old Qi was almost begging with his limpid and innocent eyes. That was how Meng took Old Qi home for the first time. Meng invited him to go inside the room to have a cup of tea but Old Qi declined, saying, I have got to go because I need to go to my working unit right away. We have a lot of work recently. Meng said, You can drop by whenever you are free. He had said it without thinking, as a show of courtesy, but Old Qi took it seriously. Wigging his elbow, he thought for a while and said, Saturday, I will come on Saturday.
Since then, Old Qi had paid regular visits to Meng and his wife on almost every Saturday.
Mr. and Mrs. Meng were not very sociable people. They were appalled when Old Qi came to their home for the first time, but to be polite, they warmly received him. Ning Zhu did not know Old Qi, whom she mistook for one of Meng’s classmates in college. His visit made her reminiscent of the past. She mentioned the photos Meng took in college with his classmates in the album. They were all smiling brightly. Arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, they looked very intimate. However, she commented, since their departure upon graduation, they had seldom contacted one another. Old Qi was the only one who had come to pay a visit to an old fellow. Meng did not interrupt his wife because he thought it was improper to correct her. He chuckled instead. Old Qi corrected her himself. He said, I have never been to university. I was just one point off in the national college entrance examination. Just one point… I was born an unlucky person. After that I never tried the examination. Ning Zhu was quick-witted enough to change the topic and started to criticize the incompetence of college students. What is the point of going to university? she lamented. Meng graduated from a prestigious university, but he cannot even install the lamps. Old Qi smiled appreciatively as he listened. When she was finished, he nodded and said, It is typical. All the college students I know are not able to install lamps. Those who do know the electrical stuff have never been to university. It’s a social issue. Ning Zhu said, Then you must know electrical stuff. If there’s any problems with our electrical appliances, can we ask you for help? Old Qi said, No problem. Just give me a call.
However, Mr. and Mrs. Meng had never troubled Old Qi with any electrical stuff, nor did they have the least intention to do so. Despite this, Old Qi did a big favor for them later on, which was quite unexpected. For years, Meng had wanted to transfer from a research institute to the Hi-Tech Development Zone. He made a casual mention of it to Old Qi at a time when they had almost exhausted their topic of conversation. Smiling mysteriously, Old Qi responded, What? You want to go to the Hi-Tech Development Zone? We can do something about it. I think as long as you have the freedom to leave the research institute, there won’t be any problems. Meng said, I have gone there and have had an interview. They seemed to be pleased with me, but that is the end of the story. It is normal, said Old Qi. Don’t you have any connections? The Hi-Tech Development Zone offers attractive welfare and benefits, so everyone wants to squeeze in. Only the ones with better connections can do this. Yes, Meng chimed blandly. How come I didn’t know that? I just don’t want to find the connections. They don’t want me? Fine, I don’t want them, either! Old Qi stared at Meng for a while, then he burst into laughter. Meng asked, What are you laughing about? Old Qi said, Hey, this is typical of you intellectuals. Meng knew why he said that; he remained silent. All of sudden, Old Qi clapped his hand on his knee. There’s no problem, he said. I’ll see what I can do. To Meng, it was a mystery why Old Qi had said that, but he did not ask him any questions. It was no more than an impulsive wish to transfer to the Development Zone on his part. True, he wanted to work in the Development Zone, but if he couldn’t, it wasn’t a big deal to him. He teased Old Qi, How come? Is your father the big boss in the Development Zone?
It was not Old Qi’s father but a relative of his who was the big boss in the Development Zone. Three days later, Meng was notified to have an interview in the Development Zone. What flattered him very much was that the boss himself escorted him out of the office building when the interview was over. The boss said, We will issue the transfer order tomorrow. In the fast-descending elevator, Meng felt as if he were in a dream. He woke up from his dream only when he walked out of the office building and immediately saw Old Qi, sitting on the curb of the flower bed and waving to him. He asked Old Qi, What connection do you have with the boss, Deputy Director Wang? Old Qi said, Why ask? Nothing. Meng said, I’m just curious. Old Qi laughed, saying, You intellectuals are always curious about everything, but curiosity is really useless. Meng was embarrassed. Old Qi patted him on the shoulder, saying, Well, he is one of my relatives, but he is more like a friend. It takes time to have such a connection.
Mr. and Mrs. Meng knew that they should do something to express their gratitude to Old Qi. The day before Meng went to work in the Development Zone, they shopped to buy presents for Old Qi. To be in keeping with the custom, they bought good cigarettes and liquor. Ning Zhu, a very considerate woman, said, His beard is always untrimmed. How about buying him an electric razor? Meng said, If we are going to buy him an electric razor, let’s buy the best one. They bought a Philips razor which was worth well over 1,000 yuan. Just as they had expected, Old Qi refused to accept the gifts. He said, If I had known that you intellectuals were so businesslike, I would not have cared about your business. Ning Zhu, who had a glib tongue, said, We know everything. You must have spent a lot on the connections for us. If you do not accept these small gifts, Meng will not go to the Development Zone to work. Her words made Old Qi’s refusal of the gifts impossible; he had to accept the cigarettes and liquor. As for the electric razor, he made a suggestion that was very much like him. He said, I will take the razor, too, but I will not bring it home. I will send it to someone as a gift if I bring it home. How about this? You keep it for me. Anyway, I come here very often. I can use it whenever I come. Nominally, the razor is mine, isn’t it?
In the days that ensued, the buzz of the electric razor often sounded in Meng’s house, most often on Saturday afternoons, or on Friday or Sunday evening occasionally. Old Qi’s visit thus became part of their life. Old Qi often visited them during holidays. As a housewife, Ning Zhu was particularly busy on such days. She could always hear Old Qi using the razor in the living room when she was cooking or washing. The house was so small that it was impossible for Ning Zhu to avoid hearing distinctly the three rotating blades cutting his beard even though she was in the kitchen. The noise produced by the razor cutting off Old Qi’s sturdy beard hairs was not in the least muffled, even in a place that was distanced by two rooms. One day Ning Zhu felt inexplicably agitated. In the kitchen, she blurted, It’s so noisy! How annoying!
The two men in the room did not hear Ning Zhu’s complaint. When Old Qi bid farewell to them, Ning Zhu avoided him by slipping into the bathroom and did not come out until Old Qi went away. When she came out, there were residues of irritation on her face. She said to Meng, You two have talked for the whole evening. What on earth have you talked about? You two talk almost every day. How can you have so much to talk about? Meng noted his wife’s unhappiness. He said, I don’t know. He just sat there and talked. If he has a topic to talk about, I join him. If there is no topic, we just drink tea, and then we always find something to talk about. Ning Zhu frowned, saying, It’s so weird. He always says he is busy. How can this be real? He doesn’t do anything and sits in our house for a whole evening or whole afternoon. Meng asked, Are you annoyed? He is not an ordinary friend. He helped us a lot. Ning Zhu said, I know I should not be annoyed, but I simply can’t help it. Whenever I hear the sound of the razor, I’m annoyed. I feel like a swarm of mosquitoes is buzzing in my ears. If I had known this would happen, I should have forced him to take that razor back home in the first place.
They owed so much to Old Qi. Their own parents and siblings aside, Old Qi was the one who was most enthusiastic in lending them a helping hand when needed. When their toilet was broken, it was Old Qi who repaired it. They were very grateful to Old Qi. They knew they couldn’t find a friend exactly like him in the whole world. But on the other hand, they had greater and greater fear of Saturday. Meng would laugh weirdly on Friday’s evening when he was going to bed. Tomorrow is Saturday. Old Qi will come again.
They once made some speculations about Old Qi’s intent, but they soon realized that any speculation was an insult to Old Qi. With the two of them, one an engineer of automation, and the other an accountant, there was hardly anything for him to sponge off. They believed that Old Qi had made regular visits to them because he wanted to make friends with them as he had literally meant to. The couple were neither perverse nor eccentric and they understood very well that friendship was beneficial and harmless. But they just did not understand why Old Qi came every week and sat there for such a long time.
Ning Zhu had concocted several plans to limit the time of Old Qi’s visits. Once, she hugged a pile of account books to the living room where Old Qi and Mr. Meng were sitting. She explained that she was doing accounts for another office to earn extra money and she must finish it before the next day’s morning. Sitting right beside them, she thought it was a very obvious hint, but Old Qi was completely oblivious of it. He kept cracking his political jokes, which were really funny. But Ning Zhu could not laugh anyway. She said to Meng, Don’t you hear that water is boiling on the stove? Go and fill the thermos! Meng was about to get up, but Old Qi stood up before he did. He said, I will do it. He rushed into the kitchen as naturally as if he were living in the house. Meng looked at Ning Zhu in a posture of half sitting and half standing. He said, You overdid it. Ning Zhu rolled her eyes at him. She gathered her stuff on the table and ran into the bedroom. Alone in the bedroom, Ning Zhu flared her temper. She brutally threw Meng’s pillow onto the floor and forcefully stamped on it. When Old Qi sent back the fixed wall clock, Meng wanted to hang it on the wall, but Ning Zhu did not allow him to do that. Meng then realized that his wife was really angry with Old Qi.
What the hell is wrong with him? Is he real dumb or does he pretend to be so? Ning Zhu said. I am this close to telling him to go away. How come he did not see any of it.
He is a straightforward person. Maybe he just can’t take in any hints or cues, Mr. Meng said. Besides, he has no idea that you are so annoyed. He has so single-heartedly helped us. How can he expect that you are annoyed?
How can you say that he is single-hearted? Ning Zhu shouted. He takes our time away. He takes away our Saturday. Other people have seven days a week, but we have only six days. Isn’t this a good deal for him?
Meng was speechless for a short while. Ning Zhu was an accountant. Her calculation was always precise and enlightening. Meng chuckled a bit. He said, If you are really annoyed, you can go and stay at your parents’ home on Saturday. I will stay with him. This way Old Qi takes away only half a Saturday. Our loss is halved, right?
Almost in a flash, Saturday came again. Meng was awakened by Ning Zhu early in the morning. He was startled when he saw Ning Zhu’s gaunt face and bloodshot eyes. He thought she was ill, but Ning Zhu said she was not. It is just insomnia. I’ve been wondering what will happen when Old Qi comes today. I forced myself not to think of it, but the damn razor started to buzz and almost drove me crazy whenever I closed my eyes. I really cannot stand it, Ning Zhu said. Meng realized that the matter was worsening. He comforted his wife, saying, Take it easy. Think of something nice about him. Think about the help he gave us. Ning Zhu said, I have tried it. I have desperately thought about all the benefits he had brought to us, but we can have a good life without the benefits. We can go to the mountains to have a picnic on Saturday. We can go to the movies. We can just read at home if we don’t go out, just the two of us. Why did he have to squeeze in between us? Meng said, How can you say he squeezes? He is our friend. Ning Zhu had no interest in the topic of friends. She was indulged in her catharsis of emotions. No, Ning Zhu suddenly said in a determined tone, you cannot stay at home with him today. You must go with me.
Meng loved his wife. He was hesitant, but finally he decided to go with his determined wife. Before they left at noon, he wanted to write a note telling Old Qi that they were out. Ning Zhu stopped him. She said, You can tell him we are out and stop him coming here today, but what about tomorrow? He will come again tomorrow definitely. Meng said, Isn’t this enough of a hint that we are trying to avoid him? Ning Zhu said, It is exactly the hint we want to give. You said that he is straightforward, so let’s make the hint more obvious this time. I hope he will understand. He is straightforward, but he is not dumb!
That night, when they came home, they saw some cigarette ends at the door. Meng counted — six altogether. He picked them up one by one and threw them in the garbage bag. He was filled with a strange sensation — he felt he was throwing in the garbage bag his friendship with Old Qi. He felt hollow inside. However, despite the hollowness inside, when he threw out the garbage bag, he was filled with such exaggerated merriness. He could hardly tell how he was feeling that night. What he was certain of was what Ning Zhu said when they came back home: Old Qi has finally received the message and he won’t come next Saturday. Her voice was full of happiness and hope.
Old Qi did not come as they had expected on the next Saturday. If he didn’t show up until two in the afternoon then he would not come at all. This Mr. and Mrs. Meng knew very well. So they looked at each other with smiles on their faces when the bell struck two. Ning Zhu said, See, he won’t come today. Meng said, He didn’t come today. He returned our Saturday to us. Meng had wanted to say it with a touch of humor, but his voice came out nervous and serious, not humorous at all.
That Saturday, Old Qi didn’t come. The afternoon seemed so quiet and endless. For a while, Meng didn’t know what to do. He felt that he had stolen a span of time from Old Qi; it was too precious for him to waste. He walked in a circle, and he asked Ning Zhu, Well, what do you think I should do? Ning Zhu said triumphantly, Whatever. You can just read something. You haven’t done any reading for half a year. Meng took a professional book and started to read it. After a while, he looked up, saying, Did you hear the sound? I hear something buzzing all the time. Ning Zhu put down the pictorial she was reading. Yes, she said, I hear something buzzing, too. It’s weird. The couple cast their gazes at the partition under the tea table simultaneously. That Philips razor was lying quietly there. Without anyone to switch it on, it couldn’t possibly make any noise. It then dawned on the couple that their nervousness had given rise to the buzzing sound.
Meng couldn’t recall exactly what time it was—maybe three or maybe four. Anyway, it was a while after Old Qi’s usual visit time when they suddenly heard a bicycle ringing outside. As a rule, Old Qi rang the bell before his arrival. Meng felt electrified. He saw Ning Zhu leaping from the sofa. Panic-stricken, she gripped his hand and pulled him into the bedroom before he knew what had happened.
Do not say a word. Ning Zhu covered his mouth and she hissed. You shall not say anything. You shall not open the door if he knocks. He will go after he knocks.
Meng felt like a burglar. His heart was about to stop beating. He stared at Ning Zhu. He wanted to laugh but he wasn’t able to do so. I don’t think it’s a good idea, he muttered. Despite what he said, one of his hand reached out to gently close the door of the bedroom.
Old Qi kept knocking outside, shouting their names at the same time. At the beginning, Old Qi knocked gently and patiently, but gradually the frequency of the knocking increased. The sound reached the bedroom like thunderbolts. Meng put his hands on his heart while Ning Zhu covered her ears with her hands. They saw the same expression on each other’s face—perseverance. They persevered for about five minutes and it was finally quiet outside. Meng felt relieved. He said to Ning Zhu, We have gone too far. He might know that we were home. Ning Zhu shook her head and walked gingerly towards the window. Meng knew what she was going to do. Ning Zhu carefully drew back a corner of the curtain to peep out. Meng had a sudden premonition, but it was too late for him to do anything. He heard a hysterical scream from Ning Zhu at the window.
Ning Zhu later described what she saw to Meng: she and Old Qi looked into each other’s eyes. She said Old Qi was ringing the bell of the bicycle at a distance of about one meter from the window. He looked lost and confused when he saw her. It was the expressions on his face that made Ning Zhu feel terribly ashamed. How I regret it, Ning Zhu said, choking with sobs. I feel regretful whenever I recall the expressions on his face. I have gone too far. I really shouldn’t have done it. Meng could not find a way to comfort her. He also felt terrible when he visualized the expressions on Old Qi’s face at that moment. He said, It’s too late to regret. He knows everything this time. He will never come back.
After that, Old Qi never came to their home again on Saturdays, or Fridays or Sundays, let alone other days. Meng knew that he had lost him forever. For a long time, he had auditory hallucinations every Saturday. The bells of the bicycles in the street easily distracted him. Invariably, at a time between two and half past two in the afternoon he vaguely heard the buzzing of a razor. One day, Meng opened the front cover of the box with the razor and found a thick pile of beard bits in it, as black as dust. He went outside and bulged his cheek to blow the bits away. Old Qi would never come, so he kept the razor to himself. The auditory hallucinations gradually disappeared.
Every day, many people got acquainted with each other on the train. However, they became strangers again right after they got off the train. The story of Meng and Old Qi was a very revealing example. Coincidentally, one day they met again on the platform of the train station. Meng was on a business trip to another city, while Old Qi had come to see off some people, a group of friends from the Northeast. Meng guessed that they were Old Qi’s new friends.
He was certain that Old Qi had seen him, because Old Qi’s eyes swept across his face several times. He ignored Meng deliberately. Meng was too ashamed to greet Old Qi, so he ducked his head all the way. He stole a few glances at Old Qi while he anxiously waited for the train to start. Then the train started. He saw Old Qi waving on the platform. Meng knew he was not waving to him. He was waving to his new friends from the Northeast.