Always By Your Side - Chapter 5
Chapter 5: An Irretrievable Youth
When Cheng Bai got off work from the hospital and returned home, he went to the bathroom in his room and took a shower. Afterwards, he wiped his hair as he walked to the balcony to make a phone call. He instantly saw a car leaving the courtyard gates, and Cheng Yuanyuan was standing at the door waving with all her strength. After waving for a while, she stopped, and went inside beaming.
“Yuanyuan’s back?” Wrapped in an apron, Auntie Zhu poked her head out of the kitchen and greeted Yuanyuan with a smile.
“En, Auntie Zhu.”
“Just now I saw a car send you back, is that your boyfriend?” Auntie Zhu asked.
Yuanyuan thought of Fu Beichen, and feelings of deep respect and gratitude rushed forth in her heart. Just as she wanted to speak, she saw the person coming down the stairs and swallowed what she was about to say.
Cheng Bai passed by without looking at her once, walked to the living room, sat down on the sofa, and turned on the television.
Just when Yuanyuan wanted to go upstairs, Dai Shufen came back. Cheng Shenghua had a dinner party to go to that night, so after dropping her off, he left without getting out of the car. When Dai Shufen saw that her daughter and Cheng Bai were both at home, she uttered, “You must be hungry,” and went into the kitchen to help Auntie Zhu. During this period of living in another person’s home and freely eating and drinking, Dai Shufen was continuously apologetic. Therefore whenever she had time, she would help with the housework. Naturally, Yuanyuan also immediately ran to the kitchen to help—primarily to avoid Cheng Bai.
“Are you tired from the business trip?” Dai Shufen asked her daughter.
“I’m not tired, actually it was kind of fun.”
At this time, Cheng Bai also walked into the kitchen. Dai Shufen hurriedly asked: “Cheng Bai, what do you want?”
“It’s okay, you’re busy, I’ll get a plate of fruit before we eat.” Cheng Bai walked to the refrigerator.
When Dai Shufen heard this, she smiled and said: “You family of doctors, you pay particular attention to your food.”
Yuanyuan planned to slip out of the kitchen, but Dai Shufen called her to help Cheng Bai wash fruit. She let out a very reluctant “oh”.
Before the sink, Yuanyuan cautiously and painstakingly washed some apples. As long as she stood at Cheng Bai’s side, she would appear to be a little timid.
Auntie Zhu and Dai Shufen were at the side discussing dish recipes. After a while, Auntie Zhu’s phone rang, and because the pressure cooker was whistling, she went to the living room to receive the call. Then Dai Shufen also went to the outside corner to pick green onions. Cheng Bai plated the lychees and took the apples that had been washed by Yuanyuan. He drew a sharp knife from the knife stand and with skillful movements began to peel the fruit. “Did you get a boyfriend?”
“Uh, yeah…” Untruthful words slipped out like self-defense, as if she was in the face of certain danger. But lying really wasn’t her expertise, and after saying it Yuanyuan’s face was embarrassed. Although with Cheng Bai, even if she lied to him and said she was getting married in the next few days, there was no need to feel the least bit ashamed. On the contrary, what she was most ashamed about was feeling like she had blasphemed Fu Beichen.
Yuanyuan said in anger and shame: “It’s better than having a price but no market.” After she finished speaking, she suddenly realized: It seemed as if she was praising him?
Cheng Bai pulled the corners of his mouth into a smile, but the smile was not very sincere. Yuanyuan saw the apple that was all split up in pieces, shook for a moment, and shut up with regret.
The next day after returning from Jingdezhen, Yuanyuan went to work and immediately handed the manuscript over to the editor-in-chief Zhang Yueren. Zhang Yueren’s body carried a strong smell of tobacco. It could be guessed that last night he had stayed up late to catch up on manuscripts. Since childhood, Yuanyuan had a little rhinitis and wasn’t allowed to smell cigarette smoke, thus she held her breath and took a half-step back.
Zhang Yueren seized the manuscript and browsed through it quickly. Yuanyuan couldn’t help feeling a little apprehensive, afraid that he would immediately throw the manuscript back at her and ask her to rewrite it. Unexpectedly, Zhang Yueren didn’t give her a single comment, instead asking: “I heard Gao Ling say that when you went there this time, you met Fu Beichen?”
Yuanyuan couldn’t distinguish whether the editor-in-chief’s question was meant to express praise or derogation, so she nodded, thought about it, and then added: “Fu Bei…Teacher, that person is really good, he even helped me revise the manuscript.”
She was accustomed to calling him Fu Beichen, so she had almost blurted it out like a car without brakes.
Zhang Yueren glanced at her, and in a neither strong nor weak manner delivered one line: “I didn’t know he had a two-character surname.”
Two-character surname Fubei.
Yuanyuan was stunned on the spot, she was really unable to take such a cold joke.
Zhang Yueren didn’t bother with her not responding. “There are still two more magazine issues. Professor Min’s special column on painting and calligraphy appreciation is finished. Next, I plan to do Dunhuang.” Saying so, he laughed. “Professor Fu Jiasheng is a specialist in this field. I hope you can invite Professor Fu as the chief writer.”
“Editor-in-chief, may I ask who Professor Fu Jiasheng is…?”
“Fu Beichen’s father, H University’s professor of ancient books,” Zhang Yueren said. “Before next weekend, I need a reply from the other party.”
The concise assignment requirements made Yuanyuan’s head hurt. The string in Jingdezhen hadn’t entirely loosened yet, and a new string was already being tied; it carried the same brittle timbre.
Was the traditional feature column of Chuancheng just thrown to young and inexperienced newcomers? Or was it only because she knew Fu Beichen? The editor-in-chief must have felt at ease.
Back at her seat, Yuanyuan sent Fu Beichen a text: “My manuscript has been handed in, thank you!”
But after waiting for half the day, the other person did not respond. Yuanyuan guessed that he should be busy.
At lunch, Yuanyuan chatted with some of her colleagues that took care of other publications but shared the same office as her. The gossip went directly towards her superior Zhang Yueren, thus she resolved some misgivings in her heart.
Firstly, why had Chuancheng Magazine removed the graphic designer and external editor, why was it just the editor-in-chief and her alone? The answer was, Zhang Yueren was extremely demanding, so much so that it could even be considered harsh. Every time someone was recruited for him, those people would run away after less than two weeks.
Secondly, why did the editor-in-chief admire Zhang Yueren? The answer was that the original number of subscriptions for Chuancheng was too small to be able to continue, but after Zhang Yueren became the editor-in-chief, he single-handedly turned this extremely small publication into reading material for the masses. Subscriptions had risen sharply, quickly turning losses into profits.
Yuanyuan was thinking about whether or not she would survive the two weeks when her phone rang. It was Fu Beichen. Yuanyuan gestured to her colleagues and found a quiet corner to answer the phone.
“Sorry, this morning I was in a meeting, I didn’t see my texts.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay, I just submitted the manuscript and wanted to express my gratitude.”
Fu Beichen paused and smiled: “You’re welcome. In the future, if you have any problems and I’m able to help, it’s okay to look for me.”
Yuanyuan’s heart said: Right now I have a problem and am looking for you, okay? But she really couldn’t talk about her problem regarding Professor Fu, so she just said: “You’re busy. I’ll hang up.”
Fu Beichen replied warmly: “Okay.”
After putting her cellphone away, Yuanyuan looked up and let out a long sigh. She had better find Professor Fu Jiasheng and speak to him herself.
As Fu Beichen put the phone down thoughtfully, there was a knock on the door.
In came his assistant, Lu Xiaoning.
“The chapter editor of Porcelain Collection Magazine asked when you would have free time? She would like to invite you for coffee and ask you for guidance on the last manuscript.”
“Thank Editor Zhang on my behalf. Say I don’t drink coffee anymore. Please check her manuscript, I believe there will be no major problems.” Fu Beichen’s voice wasn’t loud, but it didn’t bear any emotion and could not be refuted.
Lu Xiaoning made a sound of agreement and then left. As the door closed, she raised her eyes to look at Fu Beichen, and she couldn’t help but mutter in her heart: Our Expert Fu really doesn’t give people a chance.
Because Chuancheng’s July edition was about to be released, Yuanyuan had been busy for a few days. During this period of time, she had been finding out about Professor Fu Jiasheng.
Fu Jiasheng was born in the 1940s. He had a Bachelor of History, a master’s degree in ancient literature, and a doctorate in philology, plus the schools he had previously attended were all prestigious universities in China. At present, he was one of the few experts studying Dunhuang.
No wonder why Fu Beichen was so outstanding at such a young age, it turned out that it was because his family had scholarly origins. Yuanyuan remembered that when she was young, her mother had told her stories about Nuwa, the mother goddess, creating people. Some people were held by her, and others were tied with a rope and flung up. It seemed that the Fu family were the kind of people that Nuwa had held. Yuanyuan really couldn’t even be envious.
It was past eight o’clock when she walked out of the Journal Centre building after organizing Professor Fu’s information that day. When all was said and done, Jinghai was an old city, and the Journal Centre was an old building. In the more flourishing part of the urban district, the lights were resplendent at night. It was a scene of a city that never slept.
Yuanyuan was just about to reach the intersection to call a taxi—the bus she needed to take home had already left—when she saw a familiar figure directly approaching.
It was Zhang Yueren, who had disappeared that afternoon. She respectfully shouted: “Editor-in-chief!”
When Zhang Yueren saw her, a hint of surprise flashed across his face: “Why so late?”
Zhang Yueren was also aware that he had given a lot of work to his employees, but when his voice came out, no undulations could be heard: “Go back and pay attention to your safety.”
Soon Zhang Yueren entered the elevator. Yuanyuan waited at the intersection for ten minutes, unexpectedly there wasn’t a single empty taxi. Suddenly, Zhang Yueren’s voice came from behind her: “Still haven’t left?”
Yuanyuan turned around. This time, she had no strength to smile at him, only nodding tiredly.
“Where do you live?”
“……” Zhang Yueren seemed unwilling to repeat it.
Yuanyuan’s mind went a little stupid, and for a while the air stagnated until a voice sounded: “You plan to sleep here?”
When she heard the voice, she quickly turned her head—
A simple T-shirt and jeans, Cheng Bai’s usual style of attire. Seeing him appear, she was naturally incredibly surprised.
Cheng Bai nodded at Zhang Yueren as a greeting, then pulled Yuanyuan and left.
Yuanyuan quickly considered things in her heart. Compared with the editor-in-chief, it seemed that it was more appropriate to follow Cheng Bai, although it felt like choosing an injection or IV drip. She turned around and gave Zhang Yueren a humane send-off: “Editor-in-chief, goodbye!”
Zhang Yueren said nothing, turned around, and walked towards his car.
“How come your phone’s not on?” Cheng Bai put on his seatbelt but didn’t drive right away, turning to ask.
“Ah…” Yuanyuan hurriedly took out her phone and discovered it was dead. She swallowed, and in a low voice replied: “It’s dead. I didn’t pay attention.”
After Cheng Bai knew the reason, his brows creased, and he stepped on the accelerator and ignored her again.
He probably hadn’t been willing to come pick her up, Yuanyuan thought. It was certainly Uncle Shenghua who had told him to come get her, as usual. The car was very quiet, and she didn’t know why he didn’t play music or perhaps listen to the radio so that the two of them wouldn’t feel so ill at ease.
“Not competent for the job? That’s why you’re so late.”
What was he talking about. Yuanyuan muttered: “Who asked you to care?”
Cheng Bai replied: “Can’t do anything about it, lately I’m bored.”
Yuanyuan couldn’t help but think of a certain saying: Hitting children on rainy days, there is nothing else to do.
“That person just now was your work leader?”
“Not your boyfriend?”
Yuanyuan gaped, speechless: “How is that possible?”
Cheng Bai was not the least bit surprised: “Indeed.”
“……” What did that mean?
After that, the two did not speak all the way home.
On Sunday, Yuanyuan stole a little leisure from her busy schedule to return to her hometown. She went to visit her paternal grandmother who had been discharged from the hospital the day before yesterday. When she had been at work that day, Uncle Shenghua had sent her grandmother back with her mother. Her mother had given her a call to tell her not to worry about them so that Yuanyuan could concentrate on her work. During the old woman’s hospitalization, Dai Shufen had visited several times, and as long as the old woman was awake, she would be rude and vicious with her. Her mother didn’t want Yuanyuan to suffer any grievances, so she simply hadn’t allowed her to come.
Yuanyuan’s original home was in Yuxi—an ancient town on the very east side of Jinghai. From Jinghai to Yuxi, it was approximately an hour by car.
In recent years, Yuxi’s reputation had grown more and more because the former secretary and mayor had been very farsighted. They had followed the tide of national tourism, putting in great effort to unearth the distinguishing characteristics of the town’s ancient waterways and revitalize the old street. In the end, Yuxi was developed into a place where public literature and art figures treasured it as a town of “small bridges, flowing water, and people’s homes”.
But in fact, the name “Yuxi” came into existence only after the founding of the People’s Republic of China; in earlier times, it was simply known as the princess village, Gongzhu Village. This was because of the ancestral hall south of the village, which memorialized a princess and her husband from the Southern Song Dynasty. However, the residents of Yuxi all had the surname Cheng, while the consecrated prince was surnamed Fu. Regarding the origin behind this, very few people knew nowadays.
But perhaps they had been blessed by the blood of the emperor, as Gongzhu Village had always had flourishing literary veins. Many successful palace graduates and scholars had come out.
Regarding these historical events, Yuanyuan only had one thought: Fortunately, she was born late, because what kind of name was Gongzhu Village? If she gave other people that home address, the pressure would be great. But having said that, her ancestors really would choose such a place to be neighbours with the emperor’s grandson and descendants of feudal aristocrats.
Yuanyuan’s home was on the old street. The shop front was leased to a retired female teacher whose children were all abroad. The female teacher had moved all the books from her personal collection to the shop and opened a book café. The tourists who came and went all loved sitting there, not to read books or drink coffee, but to experience the leisurely, unrestrained feeling there.
When Yuanyuan was almost home, she could see the towering red bean tree from a distance, its branches criss-crossed with green leaves folding over layer upon layer. This red bean tree was verified to be more than a thousand years old, growing in the northernmost part of Yuxi’s ruins. It looked into the distance towards the south, at the princess and her husband’s ancestral hall. It was said that the ruins where the red bean tree was located was originally an ancestral hall during the Qing Dynasty, but the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom had unexpectedly collapsed. Since then, those ruins had been rumoured to be haunted. Consequently, no one went there to build houses anymore. Up to now, only broken walls remained there. It was unclear what the layout had been like before. During the reformation of the town’s attractions, the question of whether the ruins should be rebuilt or preserved had been brought up at meetings on many occasions. But because of the constant dispute, the topic was shelved for the time being. It was only the thousand-year-old red bean tree that was first granted protection with iron railings.
Yuanyuan remembered that she had loved to go there when she was young. Back then most children didn’t dare go there, but she’d had a special liking for that place, especially the red bean tree—every late spring and early summer, red and white flowers would bloom. The flowers resembled a butterfly shape, as if they were one by one stopping on the tree. In late autumn, the pods would mature and fall to the ground. When the pods were opened, there would be a pair of red beans inside. After standing at the door of her house and looking at the red bean tree for a while, she went through her bag to find her key. Because of the female teacher’s shop, whenever she went home, she went through the back garden’s door.
Yuanyuan accompanied her mother to wipe her grandmother at home that day. It provoked the old woman into talking a lot of nonsense again…even saying that Yuanyuan was an inauspicious thing that had appeared.
She obviously looked cuter than the mascot of the Beijing Olympics! After thinking about it, Yuanyuan felt very cold and trembled.
Dai Shufen looked at her daughter’s grievances, but pretended not to mind it. Feeling a little sad in her heart, she stroked her child’s face.
In the evening, Yuanyuan ate dinner and left. She took a detour to the old red bean tree in the ruins. By then, most of the tourists had dispersed and there were only a sparse few people under the tree, resting or taking pictures. A ray of sunset slowly disappeared to the west. In the past, this place had been wild and mysterious, not like it was now, full of tourists and clamour.
Yuanyuan raised her head to look up at the ancient tree that had lived for a thousand years; a flourishing green filled her eyes and the whole sky above her.
“I wonder who planted this tree thousands of years ago?” Yuanyuan heard some tourists behind her say.
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