They passed the sign that used to announce the name of the town. It was hanging sideways, held up by a single screw that soldiered on, and instead of showing the town’s name, it showed a spray-painted cock that he’d artistically drawn on it when he was fifteen. ‘Excuse me, could you stop here?’ lee said, ‘I’d like to walk the rest of the way.’
The driver pulled over immediately and seemed a little relieved that he wouldn’t have to smudge his car by driving on the dirt road. Still, he asked, ‘are you sure, Mr. Yang? I was asked to drive you to your doorstep.’
‘I’m sure, I want to take the time to take it in. Haven’t been here in years. And please, Shing, just call me Lee; you’ve known me for nearly six years now, it’s about time.’
He gave a nod in reply, just like he did every other time Lee had asked him, but he kept calling him “Mr. Yang” all the same. ‘Call me when you need me to pick you up, Sir,’ he hesitated for a moment, ‘any time.’
‘Thank you, Shing.’ Lee said and he closed the door behind him. Leather suitcase in hand and his suit jacket slung over his free arm, he started down the dirt road that led into his hometown. The old wooden houses hadn’t changed much. Different shades of paint showed where they had been patched up the same way scars never become quite invisible. The fields to his right similarly hadn’t changed much. Some of the plots had switched from soybeans to potatoes or from potatoes to wheat, but besides that they were still the same. Standing there working in the field, he thought he saw old Mr. Wu. The eight years in which he hadn’t seen his old neighbour had done their number on him. His back was permanently arched and he moved like he hadn’t seen his bed in a week. For a moment Lee thought about walking up to the man to say hi, but then thought better of it. He’d be seeing him in three days. In towns as small as this, everybody knows each other and goes to the funerals.
Lee continued along the road, painfully aware of how much he stood out from everyone else in the village. No one here owned a suit and even to funerals it was custom to wear the work clothing with the least stains on them. Everyone went, and that was what counted. “We die like we live,” people often said, and it was true. Families that could afford to do so buried their loved ones with a shovel or a rake. As far as Lee knew, his village was the only one that did so.
As he went deeper into the village, he caught some people’s eyes, and in them he saw a faint recognition, but an uncertainty as well. His family’s house was nearly on the other side of town, and he regretted not having Shing drive him there. He didn’t want people to look at the expensive car, thinking he was some big shot trying to show off, but on second thought, everybody looking at him like an outsider was worse.
‘Ha, Lee, is that you?’ someone called from his left with the heavy provincial accent.
Lee turned and saw his old friend. ‘Tao! It’s been a while.’ It had been. Though Tao was mostly still the same person he’d known back then, his face showed more wrinkles, and his thick arms were a clear testament to the heavy farm work he did on a daily basis.
‘Look at you! A man of the city. Nice suit, fancy case, clean hands. Beijing is written all over you.’
‘Well, I promised I’d make it out of this town, remember?’
‘Of course I do. Everyone does. Oh man, even the way you talk has changed. You sound just like them, you know, the people on the news and radio.’
Lee put on his best accent, the one he’d learned to suppress after moving to the city, and said, ‘Just give me a few days and I’ll be plowin’ the fields ‘n sowin’ me crops again.’
Tao let out a lough. ‘Really though, we’re proud of you, you know? Everyone in the village has seen every single movie you been in. Your mom too. She loved every bit of it; practically beamed every time she saw that smug face of yours on the big screen. I’ll be at the funeral too, of course, but let me be the first to give you my condolences.’ Tao took his hand and shook it, then pulled him in for a hug. When they parted again, Lee saw his eyes had gone watery. ‘She was a great woman, your mom. I’m sure your dad will be glad to see you. It’s been hard on him.’
‘Thank you, Tao.’ He said. The news of his mother’s passing reached him two days ago, but it still didn’t feel real to him. He hadn’t even cried yet, because until he saw her, he couldn’t believe it.
‘I have to get back to work, but you know where to find me if you want to grab a beer tonight, alright?’
‘Alright. I’ll see you later, Tao.’
Tao disappeared down the street and into the fields, and Lee went on towards his old home. When he got there, he talked to his dad and saw the body of his mother lying in the coffin she would be buried in. It all became real then. He’d lost one of his parents. Grief didn’t exactly hit him like a tidal wave, but it came on slowly like the ebb and flood of the tide. It slowly came and went only to come back again.
His dad had laid out some clothes for him. ‘Your clothes for the funeral,’ he said, ‘but you can wear the suit if you want.’
‘No, it’s fine, I want to wear the clothes. I think it’s what mom would’ve wanted.’
‘Not so sure about that. I don’t think she’d care either way. She loved you as the farm boy you were and as the celebrity you became, what’d be important to her is that you were there. But the townspeople won’t stare you down in farm clothes. Or a little less at least.’
Lee didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded. I should’ve come visit them more often, he thought. He’d been so wrapped up in work that he didn’t even think about the town anymore. It was just one movie after the next and one show after the other. On days they weren’t filming he had appointments for interviews, or he had to make an appearance for some charity. He liked his work, but it was a total contrast to the life he’d led before the fame.
‘Do you have any spare clothes I could use while we work the farm?’ He asked.
His dad raised his eyebrows at the unexpected question, but soon disappeared into Lee’s old bedroom to fetch some old clothes. ‘You want to work the farm?’ He asked as if to make sure he heard him right.
He gave a nod and said, ‘I don’t know what else to do.’
They worked the farm until the sun was close to the horizon and they were covered in dirt. They talked, but only sparingly, neither knowing what to say. It was remarkable how little they had to talk about even after months without contact. The last time they saw each other was during Christmas when Lee had booked one of the finest hotels for his parents to stay in over the weekend.
His back ached, his hands had cuts, and his arms felt as if they were about to part from his body, but somehow it had felt good to be in the fields again. As they walked back from the farm to the small house, he locked eyes with Zian, the girl next door. She looked away at first but then did a double take.
‘It’s really you, isn’t it?’ she asked.
‘The one and only,’ Lee said as she walked their way.
‘I’ll head home and start dinner,’ Lee’s dad said, ‘it’ll be ready in an hour.’ And with that he walked on towards their home, leaving the two of them behind.
Zian barely looked any older than she had back then. The same black hair in a ponytail over her shoulder, the same eyes, the same radiant smile. ‘it’s like you never even left. Well, aside from the hair, what’s up with that exactly?’ she asked and laughed.
Suddenly self-conscious, Lee brought his hand to his hair as if to check it was still there. ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what Beijing does to you. Always look your best, paparazzi is around every corner.’
‘Hmmm, really? I liked it better how you had it before. wanna sit down for a minute?’
They walked to the closed café and sat down at the table with the best chairs, the ones without holes in them. ‘How’ve you been?’ Lee asked first.
‘Oh, you know, same old, same old. Working the farm every day while raising a daughter the rest of the time.’
‘The second actually,’ she said. When she saw the perplexed look on Lee’s face she added, ‘Tung and I, we married four years ago and had the first almost immediately after. My parents look after them while we work the fields.’
‘You and Tung? I never expected that to happen, that’s for sure. You and Tao seemed like the most likely couple.’
She blushed then. ‘We were a thing for a while, but it didn’t work out. Did you know my mom always used to say that she “just knew” that you and I would be a couple one day. It took longest to convince her to approve of our marriage. Dad approved right away, but mom always said to “just wait. He’ll come back for you.”’
Lee shifted in his chair and turned his gaze to the sky that went from a bright orange to a deep purple. ‘My mom used to say the same thing when I was younger. But then I moved to the city. Did you know that she asked me whether I was still a bachelor every opportunity she got? Every single time. And every time that I told her that, yes, I was still single, she’d talked about you. Every time she visited for the first couple of years. She told me how you were doing and that you always asked her how I was doing.’ He let out air through his nose in a suppressed laugh, ‘She was absolutely crazy about you. I think even more than I was sometimes.’
‘Hard not to be, I’m pretty amazing.’
‘How are the others doing? Any other couples I should be aware of?’
‘Oh just a few,’ she said and then told me about all the people from our youth who were now married.
‘What’s the city life like?’
‘Busy. Really busy. One shoot after the next, interviews for days, always a packed schedule. It’s tiring. It really is.’
‘At least you made it out of here though, right? I mean, it’s what everybody wanted to do, but you actually did it. Lee Yang, famous across the world. Who would’ve thought?’
‘I’m not sure about that last part. I’m not that well-known.’
‘Do you regret it?’
Lee twiddled with his thumbs under the table for a second before answering, ‘sometimes I wonder how things would’ve been if I hadn’t left; if I had just stayed here and lived a normal life outside of the spotlight. I’m not sure if I regret it, but there’s just so many what ifs.’ He’d given up on smoking years ago, but right then he desperately craved a cigarette to fill the void he felt inside.
‘There are always what ifs, no matter what you do, but it’s important to not let them take control over your life.’
‘Wise words from miss Yin.’ Lee said.
‘Missus Huang now, actually,’ she corrected.
‘Well, it’s about time I go home, I shouldn’t keep my dad waiting. Can I just ask you one question?’
‘Are you happy?’
‘I am. Are you?’
‘I don’t know… I don’t think so.’