- Publisher: MichaelMilton.co.uk
- Published: November 21, 2008
If you have downloaded my ebook, which shows the process of writing this story, then you know that The Bathhouse holds a soft spot in my heart. It’s not the best story in the world (not by a long way), but it’s the first story I shared with other people and the first story that I was actually proud of. It also got me accepted to an MA in Creative Writing after eight days, which was a huge boost to my fragile writer’s confidence at the time.
It has had some intense face-lifting since I wrote the first draft in China back in 2008. The version below has had over 1,000 words chopped from its predecessor, and currently sits at a little over 3,000 words. I hope that sharing the process of my first “proper” story in my book about writing it continues to help some of you to push on with your writing and keep getting better.
His life could only be counted in addresses. This was Xiao Wang’s conclusion as he sat on the roof of the bathhouse. Three decades sorting through the envelopes of strangers, names without faces. The best of his youth spent wondering about the lives of people he’d never meet. And for what? Three months ago, without warning, he was fired from the sorting office. A month later his father died. Xiao Wang had existed on the roof ever since. Too old to start again, too young not to work, he thought. Forty-eight years-old, and a relic. He spat an expertly hacked glob of phlegm into the sleeping alley below.
Bicycle bells began to ring in the unrecognisable streets of Beijing. The sound of a new day. Hutongs such as this one, little alleys of houses, restaurants and shops, were becoming a less common sight. The transformation of the city had turned many of the old communities to rubble. The world had gone Olympics crazy. New streets appeared from one day to the next, cars with odd and even numbered license plates had to drive on different days. People called this a “facelift,” but to Xiao Wang it was simply a mask.
Twenty years ago, when there were hardly any foreigners, the streets were full of tanks to stop the students protesting over democracy. Nowadays, foreigners were everywhere and students held demonstrations to say how much they loved their country. The past and the future had collided, and forty-eight year-old, fired postal workers didn’t fit in anywhere.
The atmosphere changed. Beijing natives were an expert on this feeling; the feeling before the rain. The Olympic Committee pressed a button, and the heavens opened. The sky cracked and rumbled, and the rain washed away the grey that hung in the sky. More masking, like the new shop fronts, constantly changing potted plants and roads with half the cars. The pollution would again be thick once the games were over.
Despite the rain, Xiao Wang didn’t move from the roof. He slid back against the wall and pulled some plastic sheeting over his head. The air freshened with the shower, and the sounds of the city faded into the downpour. Rain drummed the tin roofs; a thousand fingers tapped the plastic sheet above. Only a few days to go: 08/08/08. He knew the date well and not because of the Olympics. It was also his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. How to celebrate? His son played drums in a punk band called Acid Rain instead of going to university, his wife had been a stranger since his father passed away and there were no jobs for those who didn’t want to build temporary façades over the real face of the city.
Drunk, he thought. I’ll get drunk.
Xiao Wang wasn’t the only one who wanted shelter from the rain. A cat came from nowhere and sat down under the shelter of the plastic sheet. A panther in miniscule. Black fur soaked through, her eyes as bright as freshly cut limes. He stroked the cat, but the cat ignored him. The tag on her Communist red collar bore the number 88.
Eight was lucky because it sounded similar to the word prosper: 發. He was forty-eight, his wedding anniversary (and the most important day in modern Chinese history) would begin on all the eights, and now the cat’s tag. A sign? He moved to pull out his wallet, startling the cat, who ventured out towards the edge of the roof. Xiao Wang was after a sheet of paper he’d taken without thinking when his son left home. Lyrics to one of the band’s songs:
You don’t understand me
Don’t know who I am
You make all these plans for me
But you don’t give a damn
You don’t think to ask me
What I think of your lies
When you tell me you know better
How to plan out a life
You take my dreams from me
When you call on me so
You think you understand me
But you’ll never know
Cause we are the rains that fall on the birds
Don’t sing in 中文 so you can’t hear the words.
The song was shaped like a building, formed on the foundation of the single Chinese word near the end. The two characters combined to spell the word zhongwen: Chinese. What did his son want to say about Chinese?
He counted the words: 88.
The cat. He scanned the roof, but she was gone. Was she there to give him a message? What? He leapt up to scour the rooftops and the street below. There was a riddle here, a mystery he had to solve. Her tag had no address, but what if there was some message under the collar? I need that cat, he thought, turning to run downstairs. She was trying to tell me something.
Bursting through the bathhouse doors and out into the hutongs, Xiao Wang asked everyone he saw if they’d seen the cat. He headed west, slowing only to ask people his questions.
“Black cat? Red collar?”
Sweat prickled onto his body. His heart punched his chest from within. He ran down alleys. He stopped and turned at dead ends. Soon, he wasn’t searching for the cat at all. He was only running. Running away from unemployment, an outdated business, a dead father and a stale marriage. Running away from a broken relationship with an estranged son and a city that would squeeze him out if he didn’t escape first.
He was running, he knew, from time. And it was catching up with every step. All around he saw the future: a future he was not part of. Billboards with “Welcome to Beijing” in a dozen languages. Impossibly shaped buildings piercing the clouds, full of people half his age doing jobs he was too old to learn. Ten storey images of athletes above the streets, the heroes of tomorrow. The rain was lighter now but still soaked him through. His leg muscles swelled, trying to burst through the skin. But he had to keep running until he was shown a reason to stop.
A darkly lit café gave him his reason. In the window hung a poster with a picture of his son. His son would be in Beijing this Friday, along with the rest of the world. Acid Rain were booked to perform. A bar in this very district, only a five minute walk from where he stood. Xiao Wang swallowed hard.
He said his son’s name out loud, trying to remember the last time he’d done so. The single word formed a lump in his throat. But the threat of tears was immediately taken over by an exquisite guilt. According to his wife, Xiao Wang was the reason their son had left. She was probably right. She was right about most things. He went into the café, pulled the poster from the window, and ran all the way back to the bathhouse, clinging his son to his chest.
He stripped from his damp clothes, his muscles tight and burning from the unexpected exercise. The high ceiling echoed his shuffle to the largest bath, which was the size of a small swimming pool. He lowered himself into the water as a pregnant woman sits down on a bus. As a child, he’d scrubbed a thousand backs for pocket money on the wooden seats along the edge of this bath. The stories of the men who frequented the place, many of whom were long dead, vibrated in the joints of the room. Hundreds had bathed and shared in these walls. To the regulars, Xiao Wang’s father was the centre of their community. They came to steam their bodies, but also to have their egos massaged and their hearts scrubbed clean.
He was the only one left. Swimming slowly from side to side, the sound of his strokes bounced from the ceiling, the reflection of the water bringing the walls to life. The place was still in perfect working condition. His father slogged for hours after the men were gone, maintaining the baths, cleaning everything from tip to toe, washing and drying endless towels. It was duty more than work. Had the men nowhere to go, then a hole would’ve been left in their lives. The wonders of a place to share: a place to feel you belong.
Later, in the back bedroom where his father lived out his final days, Xiao Wang looked for fresh clothing. The smell of tobacco was still strong; bringing to mind the old man’s face, one eye half closed from the smoke. Cigarette butts were still in the ashtray. He ran his hands over dusty vinyl LPs, and a row of shirts that hung in the closet. He thought of words unsaid and opportunities missed. About how many more words and opportunities he was willing to let go.
On the intervening days until Friday, Xiao Wang went through his father’s things. There was more vinyl, both Chinese and foreign, and an antique turntable he’d forgotten existed. His favourite record was a recording of a solitary piano, simple and melancholy. He’d never heard it. He scrubbed down the baths, and got in touch with some acquaintances about the old business.
“It’s a living,” said one.
“Sell it before they knock it down,” said another.
More rain was brought on to cleanse the sky, leaving a luminous hue over the city. As the sun dropped, the buildings radiated the green glow of a bamboo forest. The hutongs once again appeared as vast as in his youth; a never-ending maze he was warned not to get lost in. He whiled away the hours playing back memories of his childhood. His younger self bolted through the hutongs at a million miles an hour, hurled round bends and slipped through cracks in broken walls. Always in search of new worlds. His teenage self convinced the most beautiful girl in the neighbourhood that he’d take her wherever she wanted to go; if only she gave him the chance. His memories rolled through the red China of his youth, the dressing up and the performance. He saw his mother’s tired face, closing her eyes after Deng took control. They said it was cancer, but she left the Earth because Mao had.
Where would his son end up at forty-eight? In this same spot, in some warped eternal return?
His watch ticked closer to the eights.
When Friday came, he knew it was going to be the most important day of his life. He checked and checked again where Acid Rain were playing. He brushed down his suit and cleaned his shoes. He bathed, ate noodles and brushed his teeth. He bought a single orchid and set off for home, determined to be the husband he’d promised to be a quarter century before.
Orchid behind his back, he knocked on his own front door. He saw his wife’s curiosity as she answered, wondering why he’d knocked, but also startled to see him. She moved her thick wave of hair over her right shoulder before accepting the flower. Always the right shoulder. Her elfin face gave a coy smile: it was older and wiser, but to him it still shined bright with the girl he’d fallen in love with. She raised an eyebrow at his suit and tie and he let out a small laugh. Crossing the threshold of their home, he touched her arm, familiar yet different.
They watched China’s grand opening to the world, the puppet-like movements of the president’s rehearsed speech and spectacular theatrics that boggled the mind. He knew she wondered who this husband was, knocking on doors and giving her flowers after so many weeks of emptiness.
“We’re going out. If you don’t mind.”
“Isn’t it a bit late?”
“It’s never too late,” he said. “You’ll understand when we get there.”
The streets heaved with Olympic Fever. People from all over the country had come to be in the capital on its day of glory.
“Where are we going?” his wife asked more than once, but he made no reply. He simply took her hand and wound her through the crowds until they arrived at their destination. Tattooed rockers smoked outside in black leather and skinny jeans. She was clearly puzzled at the venue.
Inside the pub, Xiao Wang noted that he was old enough to be the father of every customer, and even the barman. The couple squeezed onto the end of a busy table, ordering beer and jasmine tea. The other occupants did not know where to look, as embarrassed as if their own parents had just sat down.
When the band appeared on stage, people stood. His wife tugged his arm.
“Why are we here?”
“To see Ao.”
The change in her face was instant. She peered through the gaps between leather jackets and wild hairstyles, pierced eyebrows and tattoos. And there he was. Their son. Xiao Wang smiled at his wife, half apologetic, half supportive. When he took in his son, he noticed Ao’s hair longer and wilder, his face skinnier than when he’d last been home, almost two years before. Though sitting at the drums, he pulsed with energy, his brooding almond eyes unmistakable. While those around the table reclined and nodded to the music, Xiao Wang and his wife were perched on the edge of their seats.
The band was loud and each song followed a similar pattern. Xiao Wang listened intently for the lyrics in his wallet, and finally heard the word “zhongwen.” He leaned to talk into his wife’s ear.
“I got fired three months ago. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t know how. I think I might re-open the bathhouse. I’d like it if you helped me.” She moved her hair over her right shoulder, met his eyes, and nodded once. It was enough.
After the band’s set, everyone jammed to the bar for imported beers and Jack Daniels with Coke. Xiao Wang stood up and saw his son look to him and his wife as though they were shadows from a former life. Ao walked out into the empty space, coming to a halt in between his two lives. Xiao Wang pulled his wife to her feet and they went to meet their son halfway.
“Hello son. Your music is very interesting.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Your grandfather passed away. I’m sorry to tell you like this, but we didn’t know how to find you.” Ao did not reply. “It’s a special day for your mother and me. We wanted to spend it with our son, and to tell you that you can come home any time you want or need to. You are a man now; you can make your own decisions.” He passed the song lyrics to Ao. “We don’t understand your music, but we enjoyed this song because there’s some Chinese in it.” Ao took the paper without looking at either of his parents. “We won’t stay, we have humiliated you enough.”
As he said this, his wife threw her arms around their son, trying to absorb the contact she’d been denied for so long. She cried. Xiao Wang caught Ao’s eyes for an instant, and in them saw a guilt reserved for mothers. He looked to the floor and over the walls, too ashamed to hold his son’s gaze.
Separating Ao from his wife’s grasp, Xiao Wang watched her beg their son to visit, to call from time to time, if only to say that he was okay. Ao mumbled at the floor, and Xiao Wang started his wife towards the exit. At the bar, he stopped briefly to give the singer of the band a handful of notes.
“Buy your bandmates a drink from us.” As he led his wife out, again and again she twisted round to keep their son in view. The tattooed singer looked at the pile of notes in her hand, and then out to her drummer, alone on the dance floor. As Xiao Wang held the door for his wife, he saw the singer move to meet Ao in the abyss.
The main section of the bathhouse was strictly for men only, and a woman hadn’t been in there since the death of Xiao Wang’s mother. It was strange to see his wife walk past the baths, as if she’d done so a thousand times.
“I went through his things this week,” he said, nodding to boxes and bags piled against a wall. “I don’t understand what we did wrong with the boy.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “Not a thing.”
“I used to love it here. The people coming and going, the gossip and gambling of old men. It was like having thirty grandfathers.”
“It must have been nice,” she said, “such community spirit.”
On the roof, they took in the sounds of the neighbourhood. Here was the place they’d grown up, and the world had brought them back on this special night. The old town had a hum and buzz still going. The names from thirty years of envelopes were real. Many had come from all over China for the evening’s celebrations. They were people like him. People with mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. Over a billion of them. All real.
Xiao Wang pulled the plastic sheeting off the old record player, and set the needle onto the song he’d listened to all week. He offered a hand to his wife as the crackle turned to music. She accepted, her smile tired but genuine, and they danced so slow they barely moved.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better wife.”
She rested her head on his shoulder as they swayed to the melody. He felt her warmth against him and looked out over a new Beijing.
The city breathed silently.
At forty-eight, Xiao Wang wondered if life might just be beginning. Terrified and content, he looked at his wife with the same freshness in his eyes as he’d seen in the cat’s earlier that week.
They smiled at each other.
“Happy anniversary,” he said, as the city absorbed the notes from the turntable.