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Poppy Sebag-Montefiore

Wang Yao and Sun Hai have been married for thirty-five years. They are being relocated from their home to a new living development on the outskirts of the city. They found a loophole stating that divorcees can apply for a new flat each.

Wang Yao told Sun Hai not to discuss their divorce with the neighbours. She returned to their building and he joined the crowd around the chess game on the stone bench outside building number six. The unbeaten neighbourhood champion was playing against a newcomer who, with strategy and determination, had been moving in on him over the summer. Each game they played now was an exciting one, and some of the residents had bets down. The neighbours leaned upon one another, almost propping each other up, and Sun Hai squeezed in and found himself a place. Each player held a piece that he had seized from the other, which they tapped on the chessboard while they scanned the board for danger and planned their next moves. A rhythm emerged between them that hypnotized the crowd.





Sun Hai became distracted when he saw Old Fa and his wife, who he and Wang Yao had tried to hide from at the divorce bureau that morning. Old Fa’s wife returned to their building and Old Fa came over towards Sun Hai.

“We got married when we were too young and divorced when we were too old,” Old Fa said to him as he slipped himself into the audience next to Sun Hai.

Sun Hai looked at Old Fa, then back to the game. They stood, held together by the crowd. The players passed the game between one another. Some of the onlookers were calling out advice to the current champion.

“Let’s go out for a drink,” Old Fa said.

Sun Hai nodded and they dislodged themselves from the group.


Sun Hai knew it was wrong whichever way he looked at it. He knew that many other men would disagree, or wouldn’t even attend to the question. But if this was ever to be, and usually it was never to be, it was to be now. He and Wang Yao were digesting, they hadn’t yet talked it over; they were divorced. This had been her idea. She’d done this. And this was what men did, what they had always done. Men went out into the world and did brave things, and they’d bring the fruits, or whatever they’d learnt, back to the home. Sun Hai knew what he wanted to do. His body needed to. After sharing a small bottle of rice wine, Old Fa and Sun Hai discussed going north, to the university district, where things were cheap, but they realized that the usual clientele there would be much younger, and that would be embarrassing. They didn’t even think of going east, into the business district, where prices would be high. South they’d ruled out, because it was too poor down there, and so probably not clean, they thought, and it wasn’t worth risking disease or infection to save a few pennies. And west, well, west was too residential and undeveloped. They doubted there would be much there. Outside the small white tiled restaurant where they drank, eight lanes of traffic inched past them in both directions. They decided to walk a little to the northeast, to the entertainment district.

Sun Hai and Old Fa sat in barber’s chairs. They’d chosen this place because it looked clean and smart and because it was empty apart from a group of girls sitting on the sofa near the shop window, waiting. Sun Hai and Old Fa were still the only two customers by the time their head massage had finished. A lady with a name badge saying Cindy on it massaged Sun Hai’s head. She seemed to be the boss of the place, probably in her thirties. A slightly younger woman massaged the back of Fa’s shoulders. Sun Hai now saw, through the reflection in his mirror, that the other two girls behind him on the sofa were children, perhaps around ten years old. They were playing a card game together. Cindy took out a hairbrush and a pair of scissors.

“Would you like a hair cut today, sir?”

“I won’t have a haircut,” he said.

“Would you like any other treatments?”

“What kind of treatments do you have?” Sun Hai looked across at Old Fa. Old Fa gave him an encouraging nod. Sun Hai wished that he would be shown a list, from which he could choose whatever sounded good.

“We have the full body massage,” Cindy said, and that seemed to be all.

“We’ll have two of those,” Sun Hai said, and checked with Old Fa, who nodded to Sun Hai and to the girl who was massaging his own head.

The two masseurs showed Sun Hai and Old Fa into a back corridor. Cindy turned to Sun Hai.

“A high bed or a low bed?”

“A high bed,” Sun Hai said. Old Fa looked disappointed. The girls led them into two adjacent slim booth-like rooms.

“Take off your clothes and lie up here, and I will be back in a moment,” Cindy said to Sun Hai. “Would you like a cup of tea?”


Sun Hai took his trousers off, and then his underpants. He folded them on the back of a chair. The area behind the shop-front looked like it doubled up as a home. He’d seen a kitchen and a bathroom along the corridor. He held one leg in the air, stretched and bent it, and then did the same with the other leg. He took off his t-shirt, then got up onto the massage bed and lay on his back. He wondered how many people lived back here and where they slept. Cindy returned and handed him a paper cup of jasmine tea. She turned on a CD playing Chinese pipe music and turned down the lights. Sun Hai kept all expression from his face, but what he felt was pleasure.

“What?” Cindy called out, startling Sun Hai.

In the dimmed light he saw her turn her head over her shoulder and listen to something outside the room. She rested one hand on Sun Hai’s navel and with the other, she stretched to turn down the music.

“Mum,” came the voice of the young girl, “we’re going out to buy some ice-lollies.”

“That’s fine,” Cindy called out over her shoulder. The shop door banged. Cindy turned the music back up and returned to Sun Hai.

He closed his eyes.


Usually Sun Hai showered, but he’d hurried back home to get in the bath before Wang Yao came home from her dancing. He sat by the taps, his face hidden, enjoying the steam from a flannel when Wang Yao entered the bathroom. He tensed. Without speaking, she took off her trousers, shirt, bra, pop-socks and knickers and put herself into the bath with Sun Hai. There they both sat, side-by-side, backs to the wall, facing the centre of the room, their legs crossed.

“You’re back early. What happened to the dancing?” He dunked the flannel in the water in front of him, twirled it, and began to rub it up and down the side of his arm.

Without answering, Wang Yao reached for her white flannel, soaked it and wrung it out. She put her hand on Sun Hai’s far shoulder, pulled it towards her, and swivelled herself around so she was sitting behind him. She raised one knee above the water, rested on the heel of her other foot and scrubbed his back. She soaked the flannel again, scrunched it in her hand, then stretched it out and stroked it down the sides of Sun Hai’s neck. She took a corner of the flannel to his ear. She brought the front of his torso back round to face her and rubbed in circles under his arms, then washed the front of his chest, beneath his pectoral muscles, along the lines of his collar bone to his other ear and down his arms to his hands.

“Pass your foot to me.” She nodded towards it, under his calf.

“No need,” he said.

“Don’t worry, give it to me.”

“I’m swimming early in the morning. It’s time to go to bed.”

Sun Hai stepped out of the bath. Wang Yao watched him wrap a towel around his bottom and leave the room. She stood. Drops of water meandered down her thighs.

In their bedroom, orange rinds curled as they dried on the windowsill. They’d have to collect those in the morning; no more tasks, or tidying could be attempted that day. Sun Hai took out the bamboo mat and placed it on the floor by the bed.

“Why are you using that?”

“Just because,” Sun Hai said.

He lowered himself onto the mat. She lay on their bed. As silence began to establish itself she rolled over to the side of the bed, dangled her arm and tapped Sun Hai. He made no move.

“This wasn’t well thought out,” she said.

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