Beijing Hospital

When Doctor’s words confound Sophia’s patchy Mandarin, she says, Pardon, but he just grows unhelpfully louder. Finally she begs, Wait, wait, and dials a number. As the phone rings, she imagines the aunt’s ungainly progress through the apartment’s camphor-scented air, catching her knee on the rosewood armchair, swearing in pungent bursts.

A click and muffled thud as the aunt pulls at the cord and demands, breathlessly, Yes?

I don’t know what Doctor wants. Can you ask him? Sophia has learnt that the aunt regards hellos and how-are-yous as wasted words. She hands the phone to Doctor and Sophia leans her head against the smeary window as they have a quacking conversation. From four storeys up, the view is bleak, gunmetal grey. Yet whenever she mentions the pollution to a local, the reply is always, You should have seen it before the Olympics; it was a luxury to see blue sky.

A finger jabs her impatiently: Doctor, thrusting the phone back. The aunt says, He wanted to know about – a jumble of sounds. I don’t— Sophia begins, and the aunt sighs. Artificial heart, she says in English. Machine.

We didn’t want that, protests Sophia. Gu Ma, can you tell him— she calls the woman Gu Ma, Aunt, even though she is her father’s cousin, not sister, from the branch of the family that stayed in China instead of coming to Singapore half a century ago.

Sophia passes the phone back to Doctor and they squawk away again. Both have Beijing accents, their voices arch and slurred. Her head aches. The noise is amplified by the narrow corridor, which smells not of antiseptic but of concrete and radiator dust. The doctor slots the phone into her hand as if she were a wall socket and marches away. She lifts it to her ear, but the aunt has already hung up.

She retrieves her bags of supplies from reception and continues to Nicholas’s ward. At visiting hours, families leave their doors open so the building feels like a many-storeyed village, children shuffling in corners and wives noisily recounting the latest gossip. She had wanted Nicholas to go private but the aunt vetoed that – the care wouldn’t be as good. Korean surgeons, she sniffed. Japanese nurses.

They have at least insisted on a private ward. It is important that Nicholas has restful surroundings before his operation; he can always earn the money to pay for this after recovery. She turns a corner and the grinding of the lift fades. The doors are farther apart here. They are the only foreigners in this section, though if she does not speak she can pass for a local.

Nicholas is watching television when she comes in, although he doesn’t understand a word of Chinese. He claims to follow the sense, but she thinks he just wants a voice in the room. She has left him a small stack of index cards on which the aunt has scrawled ‘Bring water’ or ‘Turn down heating’.

A chaste kiss as always; then she begins to pull containers from her bags. Over Sophia’s protests, the aunt insisted on doing the cooking. Your food is the reason he’s sick, she’d said, and there was enough truth in that to silence Sophia. She still remembers the consultant talking about malignant hypertension, blaming diet as well as stress. Her guilty recollection of all those steaks fried in butter, all that French patisserie.

The hospital does not provide food. This had surprised Sophia, but then she wouldn’t have trusted anything they served. She pushes the folding table across Nicholas’s bed, and places the plastic containers within easy reach. He will not eat all of this; the variety is to stimulate his appetite. Double-boiled soup – just a little; they are supposed to be restricting fluid intake – stewed pork, steamed fish, fluffy white rice. He brings a shaky spoonful to his mouth.

Sophia goes to the market every morning with the aunt, paying pennies for an array of meats, and fish lifted live from a basin and splayed open in front of them, making sure everything is fresh and untainted. She has heard terrible stories about processed foods. One is playing out on the news at the moment: a milk powder scandal, babies dying from formula adulterated with melamine. She shudders, imagining sniffing at a bottle – Something’s off. A bit too chalky? No, I’m sure it’s fine. . . .

When Nicholas has had enough, the food goes back into the bags it arrived in, boxes slotting neatly together, cutlery wrapped in a paper towel. She pours him tea from a thermos and blows coolingly before touching it to his lips. In the first days, she felt the need to keep up a stream of chatter, filling the dead air. Now she sees her presence is enough. She can sit with him and time will pass of its own accord. She reads him an article from The Economist – something about Elizabeth Warren, which he snorts at, a glimpse of his old self.

The nurses come as usual, day shift handing over to night. Both are young, alike enough to be sisters. They smile and jabber rapidly over his chart. Sophia is sure they linger in the doorway longer than necessary, still taken with the novelty of a white man on their floor. Finally, she thanks them pointedly and they go.

They did more tests today, says Nicholas, shrugging as if to forestall her next question. Who knows what for? They took some blood, labelled it, and packed the vials neatly into a plastic box that whizzed off on a trolley. So much of him, circulating in unknown parts of the hospital.

Sophia nods, and then remembers. Doctor said something about a mechanical heart. I got Gu Ma to say you’d never wanted one – This was an option they’d been offered in Singapore, when it became clear Nicholas did not meet the criteria for the transplant waiting list. It seemed plausible at first. What is the heart except a pump? What does it do that a machine cannot? But this would only ever be a temporary measure, and he didn’t want to live a patchwork life, buying one year at a time, never knowing how much longer—

They already have this information, he says. They keep asking me the same questions. I hope there isn’t—

Gu Ma says nothing will go wrong. You’re a textbook case. The aunt works with livers, but knows someone in the heart work-unit and managed to get Nicholas admitted that way. As long as we’re able to pay, they’ll do a good job for you.

They slip into another silence. She straightens his bedspread, which is too short for him; his feet stick out. She notices his toenails need cutting, but has not brought clippers. When the sunlight has gone she puts on the light, which shows up stained linoleum, grimy salmon-pink walls. She has never actually seen a cockroach in the building, but suspects they lurk out of sight.

When Nicholas collapsed, her first thought was this must be one of his opaque practical jokes, embarrassing her in the middle of IKEA. She stood helpless, cross, until people came running. A store assistant started CPR. Understanding only came when the ambulance arrived. She sat in the back, thinking, This doesn’t happen to people like us.

How long ago was that? Months? Weeks? So hard to pin time down in the eternal summer of Singapore. She sometimes passes on news of the outside world – a new Goldman Sachs outrage, some faraway natural disaster – which he contrives to seem interested in, but really, the world has shrunk to the two of them: just these walls, just the stubborn passages inside his heart which will not function as they should.

We’re so lucky Gu Ma brought us here, she says ritualistically, unsure whether she is trying to arouse gratitude in herself, or merely to appear grateful so the universe will not take even this chance away from them. Yes, says Nicholas. Very lucky. They could never, on their own, have negotiated their way into this hospital, not without the aunt to speak to certain people, to scribble her way through swathes of paperwork with the élan of someone who’s lived her life in a low-tech bureaucracy.

They play a word-hunt game on her iPad and Nicholas cheats flagrantly, which she pretends not to notice. It is a relief when Nurse comes to tell her to please leave, come again tomorrow. Sophia kisses her husband’s dry lips and joins the families clustering in the hallways, laughing and shouting at children to stop running. Her insides are heavy, as if the grey sky outside has taken up residence in her. She is somehow unable to fit into the rhythm of the people around her, and they keep bumping into her.

Her phone rings as she reaches the car park. She knows it will be the aunt, and breathes in-out rapidly three times before pressing ‘answer’. Gu Ma?

Finished? Can’t pick you up today. Meeting.

The aunt has a lot of meetings. Sophia has not been able to decipher what these might be – something to do with the Party? She does not want to know.

That’s fine, she says. I’ll take a taxi. She remembers to use the proper Mandarin word, ‘gongche’, not the Singaporean ‘deshi’ – a bastardisation of the English.

Don’t tell the driver where you’re from.

I’ll just say I’m from the South. The aunt insists Beijing taxi drivers, being rogues, will overcharge her mercilessly if they find out she is foreign.

Don’t know what time I’ll be back. Eat without me.

Yes. Sophia hesitates, but the words bubble up. Gu Ma, will he be all right?

The aunt sniffs. Don’t worry for nothing. Old Cheng will do a good job. He’s done so many hearts over the years – for him, it’s just like putting a new battery in your alarm clock. Old Cheng is the former colleague. Sophia isn’t sure how they are connected. Campmates in the time of reeducation? Something like that.

Thank you, says Sophia to the click of the aunt hanging up. The sky is inky blue as she walks round the front of the building. The roadside trees are sharp silhouettes. She thinks of the Chinese word ‘qing’, which means something between black and green: the exact colour of a tree at dusk.

That was a good phone call. Talking to the aunt is an obstacle course, especially with her limited Mandarin. She counts a conversation successful if it passes without real awkwardness on either side. It doesn’t help that she barely knows the aunt – their families were only able to get back in touch after China opened its borders in the eighties. She has a childhood memory of a loud-voiced woman visiting once, her clothes plain and washed thin, smelling of unaired rooms. She is in her sixties now, a squat figure with formidable powers of persuasion.

It can’t have been easy being a female doctor, and perhaps this is why the aunt never married. Sophia knows she should show an interest, but can’t find the energy to ask questions, and there are always more pressing things: Nicholas’s food, Nicholas’s medicine. She remembers her father once saying something about high-powered friends, how she could have risen higher if not for political factions – but this is part of the wall of unknowing that now surrounds Sophia: China, the aunt’s past, Nicholas’s illness. Each overwhelming, too large to contemplate.

Outside the hospital, there’s a sculpture on a tall pedestal. High overhead, two bronze hands clasp, each the size of a man’s head, the lower hand clearly being pulled from danger. The upper hand is fringed with the edge of a sleeve, on which it is just possible to make out the emblem of a five-pointed star.

Her own hands clasped for warmth, Sophia walks to the pavement. Even though winter is supposed to be on its way out, the air is chilly. She shivers as she checks that her bags are all there. A man is selling roast chestnuts nearby, his brazier exuding charred, smoky fumes. If only I could be saved, she thinks, stretching her arm out into the road to stop a taxi.

At two in the morning, the concrete walls begin to sweat. They must turn off the heating at night for the building to chill so rapidly. This is Nicholas’s worst time, when he gives up trying to force himself into sleep. Perhaps it is better this way, rather than sleeping through what could be his last hours of life.

He tries to divert his mind but now it slips into well-travelled lines. If he dies on the table; or if he lives, but is no better off than before; or if they magically remake him the way he was before, strong and whole, and he can go home! None of these possibilities feels real. There seems no reason he shouldn’t be here forever, in this dank bunker of a room, listening to the coughs seeping in from adjacent wards.

Most of all, it seems inconceivable that a stranger’s organ will beat inside his chest. He has spent the day visualising the heart of each person around him, doctors, cleaners, even Sophia – stripping away the layers; skin and bone and fat, laying bare the dark red core. He imagines scalpels filching one swollen muscle, neatly replacing it with another.

It has been a year of strangeness. The blank disbelief on Sophia’s face as they stretchered him through IKEA. All the way to the hospital, she squeezed his hand – though she says it’s impossible he could remember this; he didn’t recover consciousness until later that afternoon. Now he keeps his recollections to himself.

His vocabulary has expanded over this year. He has learnt the precise medical terms for each of his symptoms – the heaviness keeping him awake is pulmonary oedema, his weak heart no longer able to pump the fluid from his lungs. He knows the difference between aortic and ventricular aneurysms. Some of this comes from doctors, but also hearsay, piles of medical journals and, most of all, the Internet. The last few days have been a release – no Wi-Fi at the hospital, preventing Sophia even from reading out good wishes on Facebook: the deadening parade of friends who feel they ought to say something.

He makes a list in his head of people who might miss him. He has no family to speak of. Sophia, of course – but for how long? And friends – but again, he can think of only a couple he would want in the room right now. Can he remember the names of all thirty-four MBA classmates, all twenty-seven people from his college choir? How many of them will remember him?

But this is morbid. He reaches for his bedside water bottle before remembering it has been taken away, the nurses placing their hands firmly across their mouths in a gesture of abstinence. He remembers an episode from his childhood: their family cat wasn’t supposed to eat anything the night before spaying, but jumped up on the breakfast table and snatched a scrap of food. They took it to the vet anyway, and it died under anaesthetic, choking to death on regurgitated ham.

If Sophia were here – and now he feels resentful that she is not. She would have stayed, but he sent her away. He couldn’t allow it. He’d be fine: he was a big boy. All the things he felt obliged to say. And so she’s spending another night on the aunt’s creaky sofa, probably little more comfortable than on a plastic hospital chair. He feels she might have offered one more time.

And once again his mind fills with Sophia. If she were here, if she were to attain one of her rare periods of calm – when she is still, her outline no longer flickering, her voice suddenly gentle. If she would just pull her fingers through his hair, just once, knead the precise spot on his neck that makes all the tension leave his body. Tears prickle at his eyes and he is horrified. To be sniffling like a schoolboy when he will see her tomorrow! He imagines himself whole again. Perhaps a year, Doctor said – at least according to Sophia’s translation, which he mistrusts. He suspects her of eliding inconvenient statements, glossing over words she does not understand. At her school, she once told him, it was fashionable to speak Mandarin badly, to flaunt ultra-fluent English – and he has noticed her anxious, furrowed concentration when Doctor speaks.

Nicholas is still a young man with almost all his hair, but must privately acknowledge his outline is not as firm as it once was. He runs his hands over his belly, comfortably flat now he is lying down, and wonders if this degradation is the result of a year of no gym, no five-a-side – or the inevitable decline of a man in his middle thirties, the first supports giving way before the entire edifice collapses. When I am strong again, he promises, I will start jogging.

The wall clock is barely visible. He squints through the gloom, trying to distinguish the minute hand from shadow. Is it before or after three? He doesn’t want to turn on the light and bring himself to full wakefulness. At least in the dark he can glide along the surface of consciousness. Several times now he has felt a shift, as if he’d fallen into a stretch of light sleep, or at least had his mind empty momentarily.

This is his eighth night in Beijing, a city he has visited many times before, but never really seen. His memories are mostly of the insides of buildings – meeting rooms, cocktail bars. A world of work that once seemed barely tolerable, a laughable exercise in moneymaking until real success found him. Now he finds he cannot wait to get back: to knot his tie, step into polished shoes, allow the numbers to run through his brain, familiar as slipping into a warm bath.

He has been out with Sophia only once here, on a day when the low winter sunlight seemed too enticing to ignore. They took a taxi to one of the large parks, full of humanity even on such a cold day. Huai Hai Gong Yuan, Sophia read doubtfully off the sign at the entrance. ‘Hai’ is ‘sea’. Maybe that’s the lake? His skin was grey in full daylight: actually grey.

The afternoon was a disaster. Sophia’s brittle cheerfulness gave way and she snapped at him for making fun of a woman’s hair. She probably doesn’t speak English, he protested, but she was already marching stiffly ahead. He was in hospital slippers, which forced him to shuffle like an old man. Next time, he resolved, he would make an effort and put on lace-up shoes. Only Sophia never offered to take him out again.

The walls feel impenetrable. He has never felt so constrained. Both alone and with Sophia, he has always been able to board a plane to take him where he needed to be. The first sealed door wasn’t actually the illness; it was being told by the hospital in Singapore that he was considered a poor candidate for a transplant; it was learning from a harassed-sounding woman in a Newcastle call-centre that, having lived outside the UK for so long, he was no longer eligible for NHS treatment. The cost of a private operation made his eyes widen. Why hadn’t they saved more? Or bothered taking out insurance?

He remembers his watch and rummages for it in the drawer. It is designed for diving and lights up at the touch of a button. A minute after four. He must surely have slept a little, even if he wasn’t aware of it. He can’t have been up all these hours, chasing thoughts in circles. Even now the lines in his head will not stay orderly; they bend and twist around each other. This is wrong. He isn’t supposed to be agitated. Even though he hasn’t smoked since university, he desperately wants a cigarette.

It is so still, the quietest hour of the night. He thinks he can hear his own heart: normal, no stutter, just a regular thud. What will they do with it? A bin full of medical waste somewhere, and— his imagination fails him. Presumably the risk of contamination rules out landfill, so the incinerator? All those scraps of bodies: fat melting, little hairs catching fire, igniting skin.

He feels a knot inside him dissolve as if made of sugar, and he is calm. The city letting out its breath, a pause before it draws the next. For the first time in weeks, there is no pain between his shoulder blades. This may be the resignation of a condemned man approaching the scaffold, but there is strength in it too. You can do nothing further to me, he thinks. After the trapdoor opens, gravity takes over.

A bubble of noise just outside his door: creaking, rattling wheels and rough voices. He is routinely woken just before dawn by the cleaners, who will not enter his room till much later but announce their presence, distributing cleaning supplies at regular intervals along the corridor like peeing dogs marking their territory. They chatter constantly, louder than can possibly be necessary. Sophia may be hesitant when she speaks Mandarin, but at least her tone is pleasantly modulated, obviously educated.

He closes his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them again the corridor is silent and sunlight has appeared on the wall, the yellow of broken egg finger-streaked through Venetian blinds. Something unhooks inside him – excitement from a past life. Spring is on its way. He has lived in Singapore too long, absorbed too much of its constant tropical sun. Now he remembers the pleasure of seasons, the sudden lightness of a coat-free afternoon.

Nicholas feels his anger slip away. It isn’t fair that his parents are dead, that he is alone in this box of patchy walls, his own body betraying him. But he lets this drift away, and soon it is beyond his field of vision. Sophia’s moods, her maddening aunt, the head-drilling voices of the cleaning staff – one after another they float into darkness. He has always been the kind of man who builds up quiet rage over weeks. Not now. He inches a toe forward until it just touches the pool of sun, convinced he feels a gradual warmth blossom over his body.

By the time the nurse comes in – without knocking, as usual – he is able to watch her placidly. She seems unnerved by his attempt at a smile. There are a few things she must do – take his temperature, check his chart – and she goes through them studiously, as if he is a puzzle requiring great attention to solve.

Perhaps it is the sleepless night, but the next hour passes in a fog. He is wheeled down a corridor and his chest is shaved. So many lights. They flare above his head, making squiggles across his retina. Each time he opens his eyes, his surroundings have shifted. Everyone is speaking, but probably not to him. Sophia flickers past, though later he can’t remember if his eyes were open or shut when he saw her. They inject various liquids into him. He feels oddly little pain, then none at all.

Soon you will be going home, says the aunt. Sophia jumps. She’s been staring out the car window. Maybe, she replies. Probably. It depends what Doctor says.

I’ve enjoyed having you here. The aunt is unusually abstracted today, not shouting at other drivers, even though they have been stuck in traffic for forty minutes and motorcycles keep veering close enough to threaten her wing mirror.

We’ll visit again. There is more that Sophia wants to add – how grateful she is, how sorry she doesn’t know the aunt better – but the right words fail to come. There must be polite formulae for these situations. I should have watched more TV, she thinks. How many soap opera scenes there must be of awkward car journeys, family members reaching tentatively towards each other – stock phrases used by lazy screenwriters.

Instead she says, Gu Ma— and then stops. She should not, but the question comes unbidden. Are you sure everything’s going to be okay?

The older woman shows no exasperation at being asked again, for the third time since breakfast. Of course, right as rain, she says, her intonation and phrasing consistent as a fairy tale. Why are you so worried?

You hear so many things—

Don’t listen to things.

I read on the Internet about someone dying. He had cancer and they gave him a new liver, but he died later. It turned out the liver was HIV positive. The aunt laughs. That might happen at a private clinic. At this hospital they choose good organs. When I was still on the work-unit, we had to match the tissue samples very carefully, to make sure everything was compatible before the executions went ahead. The patients who came through us always made full recoveries.

Sophia isn’t sure she has understood correctly. Executions?

The condemned prisoners were tested several times, everyone on death row, until we found something suitable. So much work. We had to inject them with an anti-coagulant before they were shot.

I didn’t – I thought it was car accidents, or brain death – in most countries—

Is it? Well, not in China. Who wants to meet their ancestors with half their insides missing?

A swoosh of relief, as the traffic starts to move again. The aunt nudges the car forward, jaggedly overtaking. Sophia wonders if she already knew this. Half-remembered magazine articles about forged signatures on consent forms, men and women appearing in court with jaws wired shut to prevent them speaking out. Why did she think this had nothing to do with her?

The aunt seems to guess what is bothering her. You shouldn’t feel guilty. These are all people who’ve done bad things. This way at least they can pay something back to society.

But how— and again, her limited vocabulary trips her up. How can someone in that position really consent? Did our heart, the one now in my husband’s chest— But there are no words in any language to ask such a question. She tries not to think what a short wait they had for a match. Don’t think about it, says the aunt. I knew a lot of comrades who were sent to work in the abattoirs during re-education. They stopped eating meat after that. It’s best not to think about it.

They are moving at speed now, the traffic suddenly smooth again. Buildings streak past, concrete slabs studded with neon signs. Between bright pink beauty parlour hoardings and homely restaurant names, familiar images appear: Starbucks, the Gap, Taco Bell, English names replaced by Chinese characters but still instantly recognisable. I could go into a shopping centre and pretend I’m home, she thinks.

For the first time since coming here, she allows herself to imagine their Tanjong Pagar apartment. Perhaps in just a few days – stepping out of the lift, with their luggage. Opening the familiar door. Her mother’s domestic helper comes round twice a week, so there’d be no dust, just the faint lemon scent of floor polish. They’d walk slowly through the rooms as if to reclaim possession. Turn on the air-conditioning. And then?

She has not experienced this since school: an event so ominous it becomes impossible to see beyond, the quiet desolation of the day after your last exam. Relief, of course, but also a dull ache: absence, like a missing tooth.

The aunt is speaking again, something about messages to pass on to her mother, her cousins. This is a family visit, and now that the main complication is over, there are protocols to negotiate, souvenirs to be bought. Sophia nods at the right moments. She will do this, but already she knows this is all, these messages from the aunt are the last real contact they will have. The Chinese do not send cards at Christmas, so there is not even that. Will she call the aunt, if she and Nicholas find themselves back in Beijing at some point? Well, perhaps, depending on their schedule. So awkward for Nicholas, who doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin.

They parallel park on a side street. A warden comes over and mechanically recites: Ten yuan for the first hour, five for each subsequent half hour. The aunt cuts him off. I’ll give you twenty, just let me park here as long as I want. They haggle and settle on twenty-five, and he’ll keep an eye on the car for her.

It is not far to the hospital, but the walk there is littered with the usual hazards: uneven pavements that end abruptly, drivers who treat traffic lights as no more than suggestions. At one point they have to step out onto the road because the entire pavement is taken up by a donkeycart, from which an old couple are selling watermelons. Sophia follows closely behind the aunt, trusting in her to navigate the hostile terrain.

The safety wall before the hospital entrance is covered in earnest graffiti, made with marker pens rather than spray paint: some slogans that mean nothing to Sophia, and a great many phone numbers. She’d vaguely assumed these were prostitutes advertising. Now, she realises, most of them are preceded by the same single character: ‘shen’. Kidney.

Something gives way around the level of Sophia’s own kidneys, some kind of air lock that suddenly empties her body of air, the rush of it leaving her barely able to stand. For a moment she cannot draw breath, and she must put a hand on the sliding doors to steady herself. Not now. Deal with this later. Her chin snaps up, and she makes the effort to pull herself upright.

She becomes aware the aunt has said something. Pardon?

I’ll let you see him alone, says the aunt again. Don’t worry about me. I’ll go have a chat with Old Cheng.

Gu Ma – thank you. This seems inadequate, but the older woman nods firmly, reassuringly, and trots off into the depths of the hospital. Sophia watches her aunt’s sturdy legs and broad back, mind filling with unexpected tenderness.

All the way up the stairs, Sophia studies everyone she passes, trying to work out who is grieving, who is hopeful, what each person must long for. Something like a song grows inside her, a lightness that breaks gradually, step after step. By the time she reaches Nicholas’s floor, she is humming. There is queasiness beneath this, the rumble of upset waiting to make itself known, but she is able to push it far down and skate over its surface. The nurses smile politely as they pass her in the corridor and she decides they are not so bad after all, these girls.

When she opens the door, Nicholas is in bed, the television on, a scene so familiar she feels for a second the jolting fear that nothing has changed. But no, she’s been watching him all week through the glass window, bandaged and blurry from anaesthetic. Now he is finally out of Intensive Care. Now she can approach.

He looks up when she comes in. They warned me that the anti-rejection meds might make me go a bit funny. If I seem odd, it’s temporary. She cannot speak. Already he is like his old self, confident, his dark blue eyes no longer vulnerable. There will be months of therapy and years of pills, she knows, and nothing can be certain. Yet the air of fearfulness that cloaked them for months is dispelled. Light through grey clouds. She cannot possibly say anything to break the joy of this moment. What would be the point? What can they do now, either of them?

Gu Ma’s here, she says. She’ll come and say hello in a bit. Maybe – when you feel up to it – we should take her out for a meal.

Of course. His voice is smooth with politeness. She’s done so much for us. I’ll ask her to pick a restaurant. She must know somewhere nice. So easy to slip into practicalities.

A strange new animal has taken up residence inside Sophia, and she will have to learn to reach an accommodation with it. It only rears its head if looked at directly, but otherwise remains dormant, only noticeable from its cold weight against her gut. The whole of this grey city seems bound up in that weight. She suddenly wants, more than anything, to feel Nicholas’s warmth along the length of her body.

How are you? she says, in a way that requires no answer, and abandons her chair to snuggle next to him. The bed is too narrow to accommodate them both, but just for a moment she wants to remember the familiar way they fit together, her chin against his shoulder. This is better. She runs her fingertips over the valley of his collarbone, convincing herself he is real. The thickest bandages have come off and now there is only a swathe of gauze down the middle of his chest. She is careful not to go anywhere near that, and the tender scar it hides.

They stay like that, watching television. Nicholas must be feeling better: the remote is in his hand and he is scrolling freely through the channels. She translates, but before she is halfway through a sentence he has flipped again. They see scraps of game shows, overcooked period dramas, what appears to be a travelogue centred entirely on food.

He hovers for some time on a strange chat show, set outdoors. A man on a hard chair, in handcuffs, his head shaved. What is this? says Nicholas.

It takes Sophia a few seconds to work it out. They’re interviewing death row prisoners before execution. Asking what they’ve done, why they did it. Nicholas laughs, a warm sound she hasn’t heard for too long. Brilliant. I’m surprised Geraldo hasn’t thought of it.

The interviewer is a youngish woman, very fashionable – feathery, cropped hair and a loose silky top. Do you repent? she asks. Are you even sorry?

The man looks down, unable to meet her eye. Of course I’m sorry. What would you say to the parents, if they were here? All those families? And now Sophia recognises him. He has been on the front page of every newspaper, along with his colleagues – the men and women in charge of the company that cut their milk powder with melamine, national villains, baby-murderers. No wonder the interviewer looks at him with such contempt.

Poor bastard, says Nicholas. Why would anyone agree to this? I suppose he’ll be languishing in his cell now. At least he got his fifteen minutes. Sophia does not tell him the program is a repeat, that the man is already dead, executed by a bullet through the right side of his chest. Always the right side, the aunt said, so as not to damage—

Those innocent children! hectors the interviewer. The only hopes of their families – no siblings, because of our unique national circumstances. Such cruelty. A single tear glistens in the corner of an eye. She dabs it away, examines her fingertip.

We didn’t intend this, says the man quietly. We just wanted to cut costs to avoid bankruptcy. No one was meant to—

His voice wisps away along with his face. Nicholas has pressed the button, and they are now on a cooking program. Strange, strange country, he says. I can’t wait to get home.

And they are silent again, watching the presenter demonstrate the preparation of Chongqing hotpot. Not that they will ever try this; within easy reach of the Tanjong Pagar flat there are three restaurants that serve excellent Chongqing hotpot. Still, it is fun to watch. Sophia continues to rest her head against the side of Nicholas’s chest, carefully avoiding the scar, enjoying the rise and fall, and that ferocious thumping, as if something inside is struggling to get out.  

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