Excerpt / April 2018 (Issue 39)

Little Reunions

by Eileen Chang, translated from Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz

Eileen Chang (author), Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz (translators), Little Reunions, New York Review Books, 2018. 352 pgs.
"Hai-m-hai nei ge? Is it yours?" asked Sister Thérèse in Cantonese. "Someone's waiting for you to sign for it."

That much Cantonese Julie could understand.

A little old man sauntered through the open refectory doors. Julie had never seen such a shabbily attired postman before. In Hong Kong, postmen did not wear green and she did not recognize his uniform at all, except for the gray mailbag slung over his shoulder.

Cantonese men have unique features, and this old man resembled one in a classical Chinese painting, with a bony face and two thin wisps of black whiskers. The skinny man with long hair and particularly long eyebrows was the very image of longevity. He passed over the receipt and then the stub of a pencil with a look of immense self-satisfaction, as if he were saying, "If it weren't for me...."

Julie waited until he left and there was no one around before she carefully untied the hemp string. The parcel contained a large bundle of cash and a letter. The signature belonged to Mr. Andrews. He addressed her as Miss Sheng, and went on to say that he knew her application for the scholarship was unsuccessful, and asked that she permit him to give her a small scholarship. He said that if her results were maintained she would certainly be awarded a full-fee-paying scholarship the next year.

The parcel contained eight hundred Hong Kong dollars in total, and there were many tattered one- and five-dollar notes. Perhaps Mr. Andrews did not write a check in case word got out and people gossiped. To Julie the letter was a lifeline and she couldn't wait to show her mother.

Fortunately, Julie had been summoned to visit her mother that day, otherwise she'd have had to hold on to the news for another day or two. How would she survive that? It's not something you can explain over the telephone.

Heart aflutter, Julie felt as if she were flying in front of the bus like a colorful flag. When she arrived at Repulse Bay, Julie first told her mother about the money and then showed her the letter. The parcel, placed on the table in its original packaging, looked like a washer- woman's bar of soap. For Julie, these were the most precious banknotes in the world—she could not bear the idea of depositing the money in a bank and receiving different banknotes upon withdrawal.

Rachel read the letter carefully. "How can we possibly accept someone else's money?" she said with an embarrassed smile. "It must be returned to him."

"No, Mr. Andrews is not that sort of person," Julie muttered anxiously. "He'd be offended if the money were returned. He'd think... I'd misunderstood his intentions." She paused, then added, "We have no contact out of class. He doesn't even like me."

Rachel did not respond. After a while she mumbled, "Leave it here for the moment, then."

Julie folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope. As she returned the envelope to her purse, she felt uneasy, fearing it appeared she had fallen in love with Mr. Andrews. The bar of soap, that large yellow bundle all alone on the table, was very conspicuous, but Julie took pains not to look at it as she walked around the room.

Julie had thought she would be unable to endure staying silent about the good news for a day or two, but she had not anticipated the agony of keeping the news to herself for two days after she returned to school. She was afraid of going back to the Repulse Bay Hotel, thinking the money would still be there as long as she was not, since Rachel would not return the money to Mr. Andrews of her own ac- cord. But then she thought it would be rude if she didn’t write a thank-you note. Mr. Andrews might think the money had been lost in the mail—probably embezzled by the postman—since it had been so carelessly wrapped.

Julie knew the matter of the money wouldn’t arise immediately upon her arrival. While she and her mother took afternoon tea as usual, Nancy dropped in. Nancy’s olive complexion was perfect for sunbathing. Recently she had spent a lot of time at the beach and her skin had taken on a bronzed tan, the gleaming tan only rickshaw pullers have on their shoulders and backs, the tan only a few people can achieve by sunbathing. Complemented by her flaming-red lips and revealing outfit, she had a rather voluptuous appearance, despite her flat face and thin figure. Nancy greeted Julie with her customary enthusiasm: "Hi, Julie."

Nancy had bought Dr. Yang a wool cardigan and had come to show it to Rachel. If it was inexpensive, it would not hurt to buy a few more to sell back in Shanghai.

"Rachel, you lost a lot last night, right?"

"Oh that Mr. Pi had all the lucky hands," said Rachel, again in a tone suggesting she wanted to drop the matter. "Nancy, when did you return?"

"We came back early, before two o'clock. I suggested we come and look you up but Charlie was tired. What's this about you losing eight hundred dollars?" Nancy asked, smiling curiously.

At first Julie didn't pay much attention, though it did strike her as a little strange that Rachel seemed to stop Nancy in her tracks and change the topic of conversation. Julie didn't react when she heard the figure mentioned again—she was completely indifferent. And after Nancy left Rachel did not raise the matter of Mr. Andrews's money again. Best that it was not raised, Julie thought at the time, believing she had made a lucky escape. Only on the bus back to the dormitory did she begin to see the light.

What a coincidence! Exactly eight hundred dollars. If there is a god, like destiny, he plays tricks on people. It seemed absurd, but Julie realized something had come to an end. It was not something she herself had decided, but she knew it was over, that she had come to the end of a very long road.
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