THE HOT unventilated study was long and narrow, wedged between two rooms, with his work place at one end. Beside the door was a small window through which sunlight fought its way in on dusty rays, split up randomly by slatted blinds. The desk where he sat was swathed in darkness. In between was nothing, just worn floorboards, an old carpet, shelves of books pressed up against both walls and a woman on her knees, her head lowered, letting out soft, short cries.
It is all right to feel the pain, said Wu Tian in barely more than a whisper from behind his desk. Its all right to cry.
She was no more than forty, a farm worker from the countryside, with a red, weather blown face. She held her hands across her face like a guard against further affliction.
But tell me, why did your son steal the gas? said Wu Tian. His face was impassive but his question cut through the room like a cold command. He rolled a pen back and forth along the top of his desk.
He was in love with a girl from the village, said the mother. A hand left her face to to touch the edge of an eye, then returned. He wanted to marry her and start a new life. But our family had no security and no money to help him.
And when was your commune abolished?
Six, seven years ago, she said. Her uncertainty showed in the flickering of her eyes. May-be eight, I am not sure. Does it matter? She looked behind her, where Li Yi was standing, his hands folded across his small barrel chest.
It doesnt matter, said Li Yi.
No, it doesnt matter, repeated Wu Tian.
When we had a commune, we didnt have these problems, she added quickly.
Wu Tian stood up and brushed down the collar of his blue tunic. You were right to come to me. It is appalling how the peasant classes are being treated.
As Wu Tian walked around to the front of his desk, the womans eyes shifted between fear and gratitude. Your son will be freed. He did not have the protection of the real China. The poor people are helpless under the new government. You see now how the money ideology has left you with nothing, not even your pride. Now get up off your knees, comrade, and face me like an equal.
The wiry figure of Mok flitted across the room, touching the womans elbow, helping her up, then leaving her alone, and returning to the shadows.
Our new leaders know nothing of the havoc they are wreaking on this country. He walked towards her and placed his hands on his shoulder. Now go. Your son will be with you soon. We will give you money for the wedding.
As she left, Wu returned to his desk. The queue outside stretched back through the university campus. Wu Tian prepared for the next session, but Li Yi closed the door and bolted it.
She starts drilling tonight, Li Yi said softly.
Wu Tians face became deathly grey, as if it had been rubbed with damp ashes.