Chapter 4 - The Affairs of the Shen Family
Shen Yu furrowed her brows. The tight expression on her face betrayed the fact that she had reached the end of her patience. She watched resentfully as Tang Can poured out the lukewarm tea from the cups but did not say anything.
The emptied cups were brought back to the table. Shen Yu reached out a hand to block Tang Can from pouring more tea.
He chuckled gently, “You don’t want to drink any more tea?”
She shook her head and glared at him. “We’re not at a tea shop and I’m not a tea procurer! Stop making me drink tea!” Her voice was sharp with impatience. “If you have something to say, just say it directly! I’m just a lowly commoner and need to work to make a living. I don’t have the time to waste spittle on you!”
Tang Can smiled awkwardly at her outburst. Just as he was about to reply, someone knocked on the door and he went to answer it.
Shen Yu couldn’t see who he was talking to but Tang Can spent a significant amount of time with this person. Unfortunately, they were chatting at a volume too low for her to overhear. Her butt was getting sore from sitting for too long. She fidgeted around before noticing the stack of photos on top of the coffee table and picked them up. The top photo showed Uncle Li and some other men all sporting bowl haircuts. Despite knowing that it was fashionable at the time, she couldn’t help but laugh at the picture.
As a journalist, Shen Yu was well versed in analyzing the composition of photos. She noticed immediately that the photo had been deliberately posed. The image showed Uncle Li holding a magnifying glass as if he was inspecting something but the positioning of his eyes showed that he was looking at the photographer. The pictures also all included an unknown young woman. Shen Yu idly wondered if that woman was Uncle Li’s girlfriend at the time. Based on the positioning of the lady’s body and hands, it seemed like she did not want her picture taken.
One particular photo showed Uncle Li holding onto that young woman. He was smiling brilliantly but the young woman had her hand covering up half of her face. Shen Yu noticed that the woman had on a silver bracelet with a little bell on it. She immediately lifted her left wrist to look at her bracelet. It was given to her by her mother and it looked very similar to the one in the picture.
Other than the staged work photos, there were a couple of team pictures. A bunch of people managed to squeeze themselves into a small area. There were so many people that all of their faces were about the size of an ant and it was difficult to pick out individual features.
Shen Yu focused on one of the group photos. She noticed that there seemed to be a familiar figure at the edge of that photo, even though the face was half covered up by a hat. The person’s large, toothy grin was very similar to her father’s, and the shape of his mouth and teeth seemed to match perfectly.
After inspecting the photo carefully, Shen Yu concluded that the man in the photo had to be her father in his youth. But that didn’t make sense! From her understanding, Uncle Li was the only one in the family who had a college education. Her father had been a farmer his whole life with his feet planted firmly in the mud. Even though he lived in the city for a couple of years, he had never left the province. Her father had accompanied her to college once and she remembered very clearly the awe he had when they sat on the train. He found it inconceivable that the engine could pull something so big. Shen Yu quickly rationalized that the person in the photo had to be a look-alike. When Tang Can came back, she put down the photos and stood up.
His face was full of regret when he faced Shen Yu. “I had originally wanted you to see someone today but I just got some news that the person had a relapse of an old illness and can no longer see visitors. It looks like it’ll be a few days before that person is well enough again. I’ll have some people send you home right now. I’ll also talk to your newspaper office and have them give you a long vacation.”
Shen Yu was not pleased with this plan. She had been dragged here willy-nilly against her will, had the life scared out of her by an old geezer and now they wanted to send her home without explaining anything! She tampered her temper down with difficulty and reminded herself that it was best not to offend those above her. Even the editor-in-chief had be polite to these people, let alone a small-time reporter like her. If they wanted her to wait, then she would have to wait.
After taking a military escort home, Shen Yu sought out her parents to discuss what happened. She found them in the courtyard. Her mother was holding a basket of soybean sprouts and her father was silently smoking his pipe. As she was explaining the day’s events, her mother accidentally threw the basket in the air. The soybean sprouts scattered all over the courtyard, covering the ground like a yellow carpet.
“You muddle headed woman, what in tarnation are you doing?” Mr. Shen lost interest in his pipe after seeing the mess. He continued to lecture Mrs. Shen on her shortcomings with exasperation.
Her mother set the basket on the ground and quickly gathered up the sprouts, her face pale.
“A little extra dirt on the sprouts never hurt them,” Shen Yu said as she tried to relieve the awkward atmosphere for her mother. “Aren’t you trading them in for tofu? The extra weight from the dirt can get us more tofu!”
Her father glanced at her and then silently walked out of the courtyard. She smiled as she helped her mother put the rest of the sprouts back into the basket. When she looked back up, there was no trace of her father. She had a sneaking suspicion that he had gone to his old haunt, so she walked to the back of the house. In the distance, she could see her father squatting underneath the willow tree next to a small pond as he started out into space. Wisps of smoke from his tobacco pipe formed a cloud around him.
Shen Yu’s father had always gotten mad whenever her mother committed a mistake, no matter how big or small. In her memory, her father rarely talked to her mother unless it was to scold Mrs. Shen. He had never been a talkative person and usually just ignored Mrs. Shen at home. Her mother, on the other hand, was always jabbering incessantly at him.
Shen Yu’s father would often leave the house without telling anyone, especially in the middle of the night. Whenever that happened, Mrs. Shen would always try to find him and the whole village could hear her call, “Little Yu’s dad! Little Yu’s dad!” There were a couple of times when some of the neighborhood’s little kids got scared from hearing her search for Mr. Shen. To make it up to them, she brought over some porridge and eggs and asked the village elders to comfort the children.
As a child, Shen Yu didn’t really understand her parents’ relationship. When she grew older, she realized that they did not have a loving marriage. But this seemed to be an accepted norm in the village. Unlike people living in the cities, the villagers here did not view romantic love as a necessity when considering marriage. Most couples ended up together for the sake of settling down and raising a family. New ideas came slowly to the farming villages, and most farmers were preoccupied with making a living to feed their family.
Their neighbors had once told Shen Yu that many years ago her grandfather, father, and Uncle Li had left the village to live in the city. They had a small shop there. However, when her grandfather’s health collapsed and her Uncle Li became insane, they were no longer able to support themselves and had to come back. Luckily they still had a small plot of land that could grow enough crops to feed them and an old farmhouse with three rooms. After fixing up the old house, they were able to survive in the village. Although Shen Yu’s father had grown up in the village, he never tried to socialize with the villagers when he came back. Shen Yu’s mother was the one who had to make connections with their neighbors but not everyone welcomed her at first. Slowly but surely, her mother’s relationships with the villagers improved and people were willing to help if they needed it.
Because of that, the villagers liked Mrs. Shen a lot more than they liked Mr. Shen, especially since her personality was outgoing and friendly. Later on, some people told Shen Yu that her mother had also received a college education and was much more talented than most people.
When she asked her mother about this, her mother laughed out loud. “Stop listening to those gossips. I’m an orphan! I was lucky that your father didn’t hold that against me and still wanted to live his life with me. If it wasn’t for your father, I likely would have died of starvation a long time ago”
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