La scrittura di Arnie è un movimento di corpi che andranno a toccare diversi angoli della città; ed è impossibile capire dove e quando tutto ciò accadrà, ma questi corpi non sono più vicini tra loro e forse non lo sono mai stati, lasciano che accada qualcosa, tra la notte e il giorno come un tocco di sospensione.
Lo scrittore vuole che la città sia un contenitore di azioni che sono così fluide tra il giorno e quella notte di inizio, mescolare questa miscela narrativa come fossero delle foto di un album vecchio per mostrarle ai genitori durante un anniversario che avverrà in un prossimo futuro.
Sembra che la scrittura sia frenetica e calma nello stesso tempo come se i rumori e i suoni s’innalzano e si abbassano attraverso il ruotare di una manopola nascosta e non sai quando avverrà senti solo lo scorrere delle azioni in una città piccola ma immensa a Taipe, in Taiwan.
Dove il grattacielo Taipei 101 si erge come una “natura possente” flessibile come un bamboo, ma indistinguibile nella notte che preclude il giorno più lungo per poi essere lo specchio degli eventi che scorrono come acqua nella mente dei personaggi.
The Weather Forecast for Tomorrow
Tomorrow things will be all right, I guess? she thought.
There were only a few hours left in the day. When her mother came out of the bathroom after taking a shower, a cloud of steam followed her through the open door. After turning off the bathroom light, her mother came over and sat down beside her on the sofa where she was watching television, quietly asking, “Why are you watching this?”
She had not been paying attention, but she now suddenly became alert and saw that there was a Japanese wrestling program on the television with the sound muted. Two men wearing only masks and underpants were wrestling in the ring, and one of them picked up the other, tossing him over his shoulder.
“It’s nothing. I was just thinking about things,” she replied in a low tone, quickly passing the remote to her mother.
Her mother silently flipped through the channels till she found a news program. Then she picked up a magazine from the table and started using it to fan herself, softly saying, “The air conditioner’s been broken for so many days now. I can’t stand it. Let’s go and buy a new one this weekend.”
“Oh, hmm, but I don’t have time this weekend.”
“Then I’ll take Xin-xin with me. She keeps on pestering me to go to the shopping mall.”
She turned round to look at her daughter who was fast asleep on the bed. The news program was silently broadcasting a scene about the extreme temperatures as a result of global warming, and the subtitles announced that from the next day on, there would probably be a whole week of afternoon thunderstorms.
“It shouldn’t be too hot if it’s raining,” she said.
For several minutes, nobody said anything while the two of them just sat quietly watching television. The weather forecast finished, and the commercials began. Then she mouthed the words to her mother, “I’m going to have a shower.”
Without even taking a change of clothes with her, she hurried into the bathroom, which was still full of steam. She turned on the taps to create the rumbling sound of water. Feeling dizzy, either because of the stuffiness in there or because she had not eaten anything all evening, she sat on the toilet seat, holding her head, letting the sweat slowly accumulate on her forehead and drip down to the tip of her nose. Soon her whole face, body, and legs were drenched, and she felt she was about to suffocate.
She listened carefully at the door, and there was no sound from the television. Then she turned off the tap and silently opened the door. The room was completely dark, with just a slither of light from the street lamp outside. Seeing her mother and Xin-xin both lying on the bed, she tiptoed out of the bathroom, groping her way through the darkness towards the front door. It was locked, but she quietly unlocked it and released the safety chain. There was an unavoidable small click, but fortunately it did not disturb anyone. She opened the door and slipped out, closing the door behind her.
After walking along the corridor past the doors to several small apartments, she opened another big door. The stairs of the old apartment block were always cluttered with each household’s shoe racks and shoes. She climbed up one storey after another. From outside could be heard the barking of stray dogs and the roar of motorbike engines as they sped past: woof-woof, roar-roar. She was concerned that Xin-xin would wake up and wonder why she was not by her side.
She moved a little faster.
Climbing two steps at a time till she reached the rooftop, she pushed open the heavy iron door. The summer evening wind blew on to her face, cooling her sweat and soothing her dizziness. She peered up at the sky, thinking it did not look like there would be a big thunderstorm the next day, but when she gazed towards the horizon, she could see layers of light grey clouds silhouetted against the dark grey of the sky. Through the clouds, the towering Taipei 101 building was sometimes visible and sometimes not, an eye-catching landmark that could be seen from anywhere in the city.
It sounded a bit like the marketing blurb from a property agent: just twenty minutes from the Xin-yi District of Taipei.
Twenty minutes was not long, but it made a difference of several hundred thousand dollars in the price of the property. People said you could afford to buy property over there if you ate and drank nothing for the next thirty years, though if you lived on this side of the bridge, there was no need to live like that.
“Oh, maybe here it’s only twenty years,” she laughed to herself. She stepped outside onto the rooftop, which was cluttered up with lots of frames for drying clothes, and some people had failed to take inside the duvets they were airing. If they saw the weather forecast, they would certainly rush up there immediately and gather them in.
She pushed aside one of the duvets and moved to the back of the rooftop, where three closed cardboard boxes were piled up. She opened one of them to reveal a familiar digital table clock. It announced: 11 July, 22:20.
Today was the birthday of Mr. Huang, the president of the company.
The Daily Schedule
Every morning when she went to work, she always checked the schedule for the day.
11 July : Mr. Huang’s birthday
9:30 : prepare the morning meeting
12:00 : Mr. Huang meeting Miss Li for lunch (notify Little Cai to get the car ready)
13:00 : go to bakery to collect the birthday cake
16:00 : birthday celebration (send email to remind everyone to get there ten minutes early in order to prepare)
18:00 : Mr. Huang meeting with clients (book the meeting room)
It seemed like not much was happening in the morning. The daily meeting was already arranged, so she just needed to tidy up the things on the table a little. On the tray, she found two extra piles of documents which must have been put there by Mr. Huang the evening before. The first pile consisted of the routine quotations that needed to be dealt with each day. After Mr. Huang had signed them, they would be sent over to the administration department. The other was a pile of envelopes, all embossed with the company logo. There must be about twenty of them, and the first one was for her.
The driver, Little Cai, wandered over and said causally, “Today is Mr. Huang’s birthday! You’ll have to go and get the birthday cake again.”
She looked through the pile of envelopes, but none was for Little Cai.
“Little Cai, at lunchtime today you must take Mr. Huang over to meet his wife.”
It was not his real wife. It was his mistress, Miss Li, but they both knew that. Little Cai said first he would go and get the car washed, but he would be back promptly at noon. She nodded, and then sat down and was about to open the letter and read her email when suddenly the telephone on her desk rang. Reception wanted her to go and sign for some flowers that had been delivered for Mr. Huang’s birthday.
It was a big pot of white roses, and the card showed the name of a client company. She put the flowers on the shelf by the door in Mr. Huang’s office, adjusting the arrangement to make them look nice even though she knew that Mr. Huang paid no attention to such things, and anyway they would be thrown away in a couple of days. She walked over and tidied up Mr. Huang’s desk. The liquid in the cup was black from leftover tea, and the telephone cord was knotted, so she picked up the receiver and untangled it before taking the tea cup into the pantry and washing it. Even though these were minor issues, she did them conscientiously.
It was nine o’clock by the time she returned to her own desk, and her colleagues were one by one arriving for work. She picked up the pile of envelopes and distributed each one to the desk of the addressee, but not everyone received one. Maybe it was tax documents or else something to do with a salary adjustment, but there seemed to be no obvious link between the members of staff who received one.
She returned to her seat and prepared to open her own envelope. A fellow employee came over and asked her, “What time this afternoon is the party for Mr. Huang?”
She suddenly remembered that it was Wednesday. She quickly switched on the computer and checked the horoscope for the day. The astrologist warned that this week she would suffer from the intrigue of a hidden enemy, so she needed to be extra careful at work. She raised her head and looked round the office, but she could not tell who her enemy might be. She was just a secretary, so who would make the effort to plot against her?
She sometimes thought it was sad. A secretary dealt with minor issues for the boss. Throughout her life, she had always been meticulous, and she had studied well, though she was not very ambitious. When she grew up, she just wanted a secure job to provide for the needs of her family. She also hoped to work fixed hours. Even if her salary might be a little less, she would be frugal and get by in life.
Just the week before, she had been to a high school reunion. In her school days, she had been lucky to pass the exam and get into her first choice girls’ school. Now, ten years later, some of her classmates were exchanging business cards as lecturers, lawyers and accountants, while others were already married and were carrying small children, presenting a motherly image so different from when they had been in school, and only she sat the whole time quietly in the corner. If someone asked her, she pretended she had forgotten to bring her business card, or she proudly announced the name of the company she worked for. The others all expressed envy at her working for such a big foreign trading company, but she put on a show of modesty saying she was just a lowly worker there. However, in fact that was true.
When they asked if she had a boyfriend, she hid behind the excuse of having “just split up,” trying to block any more inquisitive prying. It was all very superficial, so there was no need to take it too seriously. After the gathering, the business cards and phone numbers they had exchanged did not mean anything, so she did not need to tell them about her failed relationship and that she had a child.
Fortunately, her mother and Xin-xin understood these things. This year, her mother had taken out her retirement fund for the first down payment on a house. With the help of the property agent, she had looked for several months before she found somewhere suitable for the three of them, and they were about to sign the contract in a couple of days.
Now, she needed to make a trip to see the property agent.
Lunch break lasted for one hour. In the past, she had always gone back to the office immediately after lunch to prepare for the afternoon’s work, or maybe take the opportunity to have a twenty-minute nap resting on her desk before the boss returned. But today was different. After lunch she went to collect the birthday cake. Every year, she went to the same shop and bought the same flavor of cake, and every year she would use the same kind of excuse to trick Mr. Huang (who no doubt was just playing along), and then finally he cut the cake and made some wishes while everyone joyfully sang. It all took fifteen minutes, after which everyone went back to their desks and continued with their work.
But today she decided for once to do something a bit mischievous.
She walked along the road that was flanked by the tall office buildings. During the lunch hour, the place was crowded with people in suits and wearing a nametag, walking expressionlessly through the side alleys while they looked for something to eat. Today she deliberately went a bit further, to the branch of a franchise coffee shop to find a secluded corner to sit down. The waiter brought the food, but she had no appetite, as she had not come all this way in order to eat. She pulled out her mobile and dialed the helpline. She was ambivalent, as only part of her was hoping that a warm-hearted voice would answer. But from the phone there just came the repeated dooo . . . dooo . . .
indicating the line was busy. She tried a few times but the result was the same. Could it be that she had remembered the number wrongly when she left the office in a hurry?
She felt that she was sinking deeper and deeper into a dark pit.
In contrast, outside the sun was shining brightly on the road, creating a wide glowing band over the ground. She saw some people strolling while others were hurrying along this golden path, and they all had somewhere they were heading to. The next day and the days after that, they would continue to follow that golden route towards wherever they were going. She wished she was also able to join them on that path and experience the joy of striding along energetically. She knew that tomorrow she might be able to, but today it was impossible.
She walked out of the coffee shop and waited under the sun to catch a bus. Her shadow was short, just extending a short distance from her feet. She did not care that her perspiration was smudging her make-up. She just waited, as if hoping for a piece of good fortune to befall her.
By the time she got off the bus, it was already 12:40. She realized she had not yet collected the cake, so there was no way she would make it back by one o’clock, and if she continued to be late, it might interfere with the timing of Mr. Huang’s party. However, a subversive idea suddenly crept into her mind. Deciding to abandon her usual responsible self, she went to visit the property agent.
An employee in a green uniform rose to greet her. “Welcome. Are you looking for a house?”
“Excuse me. I’m looking for Mr. Ye.”
“He’s gone out, but he’ll be back right away. Sit over here and wait for a bit.”
The employee called Mr. Ye on her behalf while she sat down and gazed at the announcements of properties for sale all around the office. A husband and wife were sitting in front of the computer scanning through the properties, the two of them sitting close together. Periodically, after jointly scrutinizing the screen, they would turn round to ask the other’s opinion, smiling all the time. It was the kind of intimate image of a perfect couple you could only find on the television.
She suspected there must be a video camera hidden away in the corner, capturing the scene as they searched for a property on the computer.
The next scene would be the two of them jumping up. Gazing happily at the empty walls of the apartment, they would announce, “And we can move in straightaway!”
With that kind of joy, it seemed like they already owned the world.
She used to think she was also fortunate like that. She had a job, she had just signed up to buy a small property, and soon she would mortgage her life towards it. Her daughter was affectionate, and her mother was healthy. Her life might be tough, as she had to take a crowded bus every day to get to work, and sometimes Mr. Huang would lose his temper with her, while the attitude of most of the people in the office was superficial . . . but what did any of that matter? Wasn’t what she had far better than those minor irritations?
But now she was no longer able to think that way. All she could do was sit there and quietly wait for Mr. Ye.
Outside the office, she saw Mr. Ye park his motorbike and take off his helmet. She tried to remember the property one last time: it was on the ground floor, an old apartment of just over 70 square meters. There were two bedrooms and a living room, so it was just enough for her, her mother and her daughter. She thought of her daughter’s birthday wish to have her own room, and of her mother’s inability to climb stairs because of an old knee injury. She had also looked forward to having a dining area. She rarely cooked, but it would be so nice for the three of them to gather round the table and eat the food she brought in.
Then she thought of the one-room apartment they now rented: the three of them squeezed onto one double bed, which was only half a meter from the door. Eating, doing homework, reading, and watching television were all done at the same small table . . . as she was thinking about this, Mr. Ye came in. When he saw her, he showed some surprise. “Hadn’t we arranged to sign the contract tomorrow?”
That’s right, they were supposed to be signing the next day. She had already prepared her chop and the first payment.
“I know. But I’m afraid I can’t buy it.”
“You’re saying . . . er, sorry, I don’t understand. I’ve already made an appointment with the owner.”
“I think I need to think it over for a bit. Maybe there’s something even more suitable.”
She kept her voice low, for fear the happy couple might overhear her. Maybe they would think, “What’s up with her? She’s agreed on a property and now wants to withdraw?”
“Is there something about the property you’re still not happy with? Or do you need me to delay things? Because I’ve already agreed upon the price with the owner, and the commuting to Taipei is convenient, so it would be almost impossible to find anything else in such a location at that kind of price. Surely it’d be a pity to let it go?”
Arnie Hung / 洪茲盈
Translated by David and Ellen DETERDING 戴德巍、陳艷玲