Old Man Xinjiang
Old Man Xinjiang began to pack up his
stall. It was still early. The sun, a dull yellowish–white lump of curd, had
only just begun to move into the west. A breeze stirred the ochre earth and
made the dead leaves rustle, bringing with it the smell of autumn. Old Man
Xinjiang packed his fruit away then started on the eggs. His stall was nothing
more than two baskets and two pieces of cardboard. The eggs were piled on one
of these, the other held the pears, each one of them soft to the touch,
thin-skinned and – when you bit into them – running with a sweet cold juice
which was good for coughs. Eggs and pears … that was all he had, simple to lay
out and equally simple to pack away. He bought the fruit by the pound, paying
40 cents and selling them for 45; the eggs he bought for 20 cents each, selling
them at 22 cents apiece. He could scrape a living from it, no more than that.
Old Man Xinjiang hoisted the carrying
pole with a basket at each end onto his shoulder and headed off towards the
east end of the village. He was a tall, thin man and he cast a long shadow
which seemed to crawl beside him like a giant millipede. He scuffled quickly
along, his eyes shining bright. The villagers watched him. 'Where are you
going, old man?' someone asked. 'To hers,' he answered. They didn't ask who
'she' was. 'To give her money?' A grunt of assent. 'And you'll get your leg
over in return, will you?' The others laughed. Embarrassed, Old Man Xinjiang
tried to leave but he was surrounded. 'You're still up to it, are you?' Old Man
Xinjiang lowered his baskets to the ground and thumped his aching back. 'Don't
talk nonsense. I'm an old man.' There was a burst of laughter. 'You're never
too old if you put your mind to it,' said one. And another added: 'If the
tool's bust, what's wrong with a hand job? A bit of rubbing should do you
nicely!' That was too much for Old Man Xinjiang; he shouldered the pole again
and made off as fast as he could, hopping along like a rabbit.
'Hers' was a dilapidated shack with bits
of plaster flaking off the back wall like diseased skin. When he arrived, the
woman was busy filling in a ditch, her clothes and face covered in dust. She
put down the wooden spade and slapped the dust away. They greeted each other
briefly. The old man went inside. The paper window coverings let in little
light and it was very dim. There was a mud-brick bed, heated by a flue from the
cooker. An old man with reddened eyes sat there, a pipe in his hand. He lit a
touchpaper from the oil lamp, stuck it in the pipe bowl and breathed in till it
flamed and smoke came out of his nostrils. He shifted when he saw Old Man
Xinjiang and grunted a greeting. Old Man Xinjiang took a low stool and hunkered
down, sitting very still.
'It's been another bad harvest this
year,' said old Red-Eyes.
'Very bad,' agreed Old Man Xinjiang.
'What'll next year be like?'
'That's life, eh?'
The woman came in, slapping the dust
from her clothes.
'Are you cold?' she asked, looking at
'You should be wearing your winter
'Yes, I should.'
'And your bedding needs a wash.'
'I'll dig those vegetables tomorrow,
then I'll wash it for you the day after.'
'I'll do the vegetables,' said old
Red-Eyes. 'You wash his bedding. You can't tell what the weather's going to
'Stay and eat with us,' said the woman.
'I'm going to make noodles.'
But Old Man Xinjiang said: 'No, I won't
stay. I'm off to the doctor's for a jab. I've caught a chill.'
'You should be wearing your winter
'I should,' agreed Old Man Xinjiang and,
picking up his carrying pole, he left. The old couple did not bother coming to
Outside in the chill wind, his nose
began to itch and he sneezed. He had the odd feeling there was a bug in his
nostrils trying to squirm its way out. He needed that jab, he thought, wiping
his nose. But it was just a cold – he couldn't complain, he hadn't been ill
this year. He gave another loud sneeze.
There was hardly anyone at the doctors,
just two men and a child. He picked out one of the pears, gave it to the child,
and sat down. He waited for the men to say something but they sat silent,
watching the child eating the pear and slurping dribble and juice. He wouldn't
give away his pears to them, he thought, that wouldn't do at all. But the men
helped themselves from his basket anyway, first one, then the other.
'Help yourselves!' Old Man Xinjiang
said, 'Ripe pears are good for fever!'
When it was his turn, he said to the
doctor: 'I want a jab. Give me penicillin, will you? That's the only one I
The doctor smirked. 'You should be
resting when you've got a cold. No more running after women or you'll exhaust
your yang and that'll be the end of you!'
Old Man Xinjiang went red. 'What
nonsense! You're an educated man, Doctor, not a pig–ignorant villager …'
'Is it true you haven't been getting
any?' asked the doctor, composing himself.
'How could I? When a woman's married to
someone else, it's wrong!' Old Man Xinjiang felt a bead of sweat at the end of
his nose. 'What counts in this life is loyalty to your friends.'
The doctor looked at him as he felt his
pulse: 'But she was your wife first. There'd be nothing wrong with sleeping
'She …she …' Old Man Xinjiang stuttered,
turning pale in his agitation.
'How old were you when the press–gang
'Was it really the morning after your
'And you really made it all the way back
from Xinjiang on foot? You didn't get a ride?'
Old Man Xinjiang did not feel inclined
to say anything more. He'd been asked the same questions hundreds of times, by
this person and that, he was fed up with it. Yes, he was twenty, or perhaps a
bit more. It was all so long ago – his memories had gone hazy, like a dream.
What he did remember was that Xinjiang was very far away, and he'd been forced
to go. There had been so many of them, they hadn't even roped them together.
Press-gangs really did come and drag you out of your house and take you to the
army camp. He'd been on the march for years … When people asked 'What's
Xinjiang like, then?' he just said: 'I don't know. All I thought about was my
wife.' He hadn't even had time to see her face properly, but she was still his
wife. So he deserted. The first few times, he'd been caught and flogged half to
death. At the fifth attempt, he'd made it back home. How far was that? He had
no idea. He just remembered how he'd kept going, day and night, half-asleep
sometimes. He might have been a month on the road, or it might have been a
year. He couldn't remember and what did it matter anyway? When he got home, his
wife had married another man. His elder brother couldn't afford to keep her and
thought he was dead. So he sold her, and now Old Man Xinjiang's wife belonged
to another man. Old Man Xinjiang hadn't had any money to buy her back again so
that was that. The other man was well off in those days so she went with him,
hoping for a better life. That was that. But people kept on asking, on and on …
'That was really hard on you,' said the
doctor, 'Just getting one go with her.'
Old Man Xinjiang smiled and thought to
himself, I didn't even get that. She had her period.
'Aren't you angry with your brother?'
'What's the point in being angry? You
take what life throws at you.'
'Why didn't you marry again?'
'Why bother? You take what life throws
Old Man Xinjiang squinted at the sky
outside the window, at the trees under the sky, and the yellow leaves blowing
down in the autumn wind. His face might have been carved out of wood. As if
this whole story had nothing to do with him.
The doctor took a look at his arm. 'Undo
your trousers,' he said. Old Man Xinjiang pulled his trousers down, revealing a
pair of skinny buttocks.
'Give me the jab into the flesh,' he
said. 'Last time you hit the bone and I couldn't sit down for a week.'
The doctor laughed. 'You haven't got any
flesh,' he said. 'I can only get hold of a few inches of skin, that's all there
is. You should feed yourself better, instead of giving every cent you get to
her. She's married to someone else. Why are you bothering with her?' Old Man
Xinjiang said nothing. 'You take too much on yourself,' the doctor went on.
'It's not doing you any good.'
'There you go again,' Old Man Xinjiang
said. 'And you, an educated man …' The doctor pinched the skin and injected
him. 'It went into the flesh this time,' said Old Man Xinjiang. 'It only hurt a
The doctor laughed and slapped his rump
as if he were a horse: 'You can get up now, but mind you don't crack the bed
boards with those sharp bones of yours.'
'Ah-ya,' complained Old Man Xinjiang,
'Huh,' said the doctor, 'Those old bones
of yours ring like a monastery bell.'
Old Man Xinjiang got home and put down
his baskets. They were considerably lighter now, and he felt a twinge of
annoyance. But he shook it from his head. That's just how it was. You needed to
be smart in this life, he thought to himself.
His house was small. There was a bed and
a mud-brick stove, and a tall narrow window. The beams and walls were blackened
with smoke, the paper covering the window was yellowed with age and the room
was dark. That was the way he liked it. He lived alone. It was cosy and he
could shut out the world just by shutting the door. A warm feeling stole over
him. This house was good. It kept out the wind and the rain, and there was no
one to pester him with questions. He was afraid of their questions. After all
these years, he'd put it all behind him. Their questions brought back the
memories and the distress.
Old Man Xinjiang poked the fire, rinsed
a yam and cut it into pieces on his chopping board. Yams were good. A few
minutes in the pan and they were soft – he could swallow them easily. His teeth
had all gone years ago. Chewing other sorts of vegetables was hard work and
gave him indigestion. He chopped the yam into largish pieces so they would
soften quickly but would be easy to pick up with his chopsticks. His hands did
not shake but they were getting clumsy.
The chopping board was a small one, only
five inches across. He'd had it for half a lifetime and was used to it. Fruit
wood was really good. You could cut anything on it without leaving marks. Chen
the carpenter had wanted to make him a new one but he didn't see why he needed
another. He was on his own and this one was enough. Over the years, other
people changed their chopping boards, but he'd stuck with this one. Yes, fruit
wood was really good. After all these years, it had only got a little thinner.
That was good too. It made it lighter. Small though it was, it had been heavy.
Now he was old, he was glad it was lighter.
When he had finished chopping the yam,
he had a look at the stove. These mud–brick stoves were easy to use, they fired
up quickly. He put a small pan on top and took out the can of oil. He wrapped
the chopsticks in a rag, dipped them and oiled the bottom of the pan. It gave
off a good smell. This was sesame oil, which he liked better than rapeseed oil.
Though when he had no sesame oil, he'd use the rapeseed oil and it smelled just
as good. And if that was gone, he did without oil. He always had noodles and
yams, so that was all right. Apart from the Three Years of Famine, when they
hadn't had yams, or anything else, and he'd had to live on sow thistles.
Anyway, the good thing was that he hadn't starved to death. So many had. He was
lucky. Very lucky. He'd come through without any major illness or other
disaster. But then, you take what life throws at you, good or bad …
The house was quite still, the only
noise his occasional mumbles. The bits of yam sounded good as they went into
the pan. It was a nicer sound than the songs that came over the village
loudspeakers. Not that there was anything wrong with those women's voices, but
what he really liked was Shaanxi opera, with its high–pitched singing and fiery
rhythms. He'd never bought a radio of his own so he hadn't listened to it for
years. But the hissing sound of the hot yam sounded good too. Pity it didn't
last long, then you had to add the water.
Old Man Xinjiang ladled out a potful
of water. That was all he used at each meal. It wasn't a big pot, the size of a
bowl, but that amount of water was enough for one meal. It floated in the
water-jar all day, bobbing gently from side to side apparently at whim. This
was something else he'd had for decades. It had no lip, but that was all right.
It had started out with a lip but one day he'd had it on the stove-top to heat
some water and the cat with the white nose had sent it flying. It was still
useful though, as a ladle. His bowl was no good for that because you couldn't
get it through the neck of the water jar. But the lip-less pot was fine. It was
hard to explain things in this life; a lip-less pot was good for some things
and a lipped pot was good for others. And who was to say which use was more
The water soon came to the boil. Old Man
Xinjiang began to make noodles. He got out a big china bowl. It was thick,
heavy and sturdy. You couldn't buy bowls like that in the market any more.
Sturdy things had many uses, and he used this bowl both to eat out of and to
mix noodle dough in. It saved him buying a special mixing bowl. He put in a
scoop of flour and some water and rubbed in the flour. He gave it a quick knead
and brought it together in a lump the size of his fist. Then he flattened it
onto his chopping board and cut it into long strips with his knife. One by one,
he rubbed each strip between his hands to thin it. It was quick work. Simple
food never took long to prepare.
He'd eaten like this for many years.
He was old, really old, and rich food
gave him indigestion. He liked plain food with plenty of soupy liquid. You
didn't need money for the good things in life. Like a simple meal, like
fetching a stool and sitting down to look at the stars and the moon. Old Man
Sun came up and went down, the leaves of the trees started green and went
yellow. They were the good things in life and no one could take them off him.
It was dusk and the darkness crept up on
him. Old Man Xinjiang's dinner was cooked and he carried his bowl to the
doorway and sat down. He picked out a morsel with his chopsticks and offered it
to the guardian spirits. Then he began noisily slurping his noodles. Steam rose
from the bowl and up over his head. There was another bowl in front of him on
the ground with the same food in it, prepared for a friend. Just then, the
black dog turned up, having made its leisurely way from the woman's house on
the east side of the village in the pale moonlight. Noiselessly it lapped its
dinner, then raised its head in greeting. This was the time when Old Man
Xinjiang felt most contented. He could forget himself, and the dog, and all the