I sat Yichun on a park bench while I hunkered down to crack the walnuts with a stone. Her face was the same color as the flowers nearby, and I went into a sort of trance as I bashed away. One must have had a mind of its own because, after I struck it, it spun toward her and landed under her legs. As I bent down to retrieve it, my face almost brushed hers. She blushed scarlet, and I could see her hair trembling. It was the first time I had seen her so shy. Did she imagine that I’d aimed the walnut at her on purpose and was going to kiss her? I hurriedly picked up the walnut and went back to bashing it. I can’t take advantage of you just because I’m trying to help you, Yichun, I thought. I struck the walnut again and succeeded only in hitting my hand.

I sighed. It was all because the first time I gave her money, I’d backed off. The thing was, I didn’t want the money to give me any advantage over her. It was as if I was looking at her through an old-fashioned paper window, and I couldn’t bring myself to poke a hole in it!

What kind of person was I, anyway? Proud of my high-and-mighty stance, and at the same time an idiot who couldn’t pluck up the courage to kiss Yichun. I always bit my nails when I was out of sorts. It was a bad habit of mine. I gave the walnut kernel to Yichun now and sat there chewing my nails. She must have heard the crunching sound, because she laughed.

“What are you laughing at?”

“What’s up with you?”

“Nothing! Nothing at all!”

“So if it’s nothing, why are you biting your nails?”

I stopped hurriedly.

“It’s a sign of immaturity,” said Yichun. That reduced me to a state of utter embarrassment. It was true. With Yichun, I was totally immature.

“Am I really immature?” I said.


I mumbled some nonsense.

“See? Just a few words from me and you get like that. Isn’t that immaturity?”

“Would you like to use the WC?” I said, pointing in the direction of the shit-house. I wished she would, because then I could quickly tidy up my room, or at least fold the quilt neatly and put the lid on the unwashed pan.”

As she stuffed a walnut into my mouth, she asked when I would take her to where I lived. To Fishpond Village? I suddenly felt astonished and deliriously happy and overwhelmed with gratitude, all at the same time. But I was secretly dismayed too. I didn’t mind breaking our rule not to bring strangers to Leftover House, not at all. I was simply worried that she would be turned off by where I lived, and that it would turn her off me.

Go for it, Happy! I told myself. If she was going to be turned off by where I lived, so be it. What trash picker ever had a decent place to live? And maybe she wasn’t like that. She must be well aware that clean things could grow out of muck and filth.

As we walked, I kicked away a bit of broken brick on the road. I pointed to a large puddle of sewage. “Mind the water.” There were some planks of wood lying higgledy-piggledy in the lane. I kicked them away too. They had nails in them and I scratched my foot, but I didn’t say anything.

When we got to Leftover House, I shouted for Eight. I didn’t want him leering when he saw me arrive with a woman. I was delighted when I realized he wasn’t there. And a long-tailed bird sat on a branch of our tree, chirping away. Today was a good day!

“Would you like to use the WC?” I said, pointing in the direction of the shit-house. I wished she would, because then I could quickly tidy up my room, or at least fold the quilt neatly and put the lid on the unwashed pan. But she didn’t.

We went upstairs.

“My room’s a mess. Don’t laugh.”

Yichun, sweating from the walk, sat down on the edge of the bed and kicked off her high heels. She looked around curiously. “It’s very neat and tidy.” I had no hot water or fruit, and I couldn’t find anything to offer her. “Why aren’t you sitting down?” she said. “You must be tired.”

I finally found some crispy bottom-scrapings left over from last night’s meal, sitting on the windowsill. “Have you ever had bottom-scrapings? Try it! It’s tasty,” I urged her.

Yichun took it and nibbled. “We eat scrapings like this at home,” she said. That was good. I stood in front of her, watching her eat.


“Yup. You have some too.”

“No, you have it all.”

Somehow we must have pulled each other’s clothes off, but that was all a blur… Finally, I was a man with a sex life!”

She nibbled again and gave me the rest to eat. It was exactly the same as when she’d given me some cake at the salon. But this time, the blood rushed to my head, and I was suddenly in such a panic that my mouth didn’t close over the scrapings and they fell to the floor, and the cat pounced. It was the cat from the yard next door. It had never been in my room before, but it must have followed us in, ready to scoot off with the scrapings. “Get out!” I aimed a kick at it and tried to retrieve the food, but Yichun stopped me. She pursed her lips, pushing half the scrapings she had in her mouth into mine. In a daze, I went to take the scrapings from between her lips, but as I did so, the pieces fell to the floor and my lips met hers instead. Inside her parted lips, her tongue was slippery as a fish. I held it between my lips.

Somehow we must have pulled each other’s clothes off, but that was all a blur. Suddenly I became aware that the quilt was on the floor, and there was Yichun’s smooth body outstretched on the bamboo matting on the bed planks. My first thought was: How did that happen? Most nights I’d lie there, wondering when this moment would come, and I’d get ramrod stiff. But now she was in my arms, and I was kissing her over and over, but I just couldn’t get it up. The more frantic I got, the more hopeless it was, until I was covered in sweat.

“Are you still a virgin?” Yichun asked.

“This has never happened to me, it really hasn’t!”

Yichun sat up and began to stroke me gently. The cat was still crouched in the corner, its beady eyes gleaming at us, and I threw a packet of cigarettes that I found by the pillow at it. Yichun put her arms around me and laid me down, but my you-know-what was still so dead to the world, it seemed like it would never wake up.

“This isn’t me! I can get it up normally, so why not today?”

“You’re too anxious, and the bed’s hard,” said Yichun. She leaned over me and began to wipe my sweaty face. I could see that her back was crisscrossed with marks from the bed mat.

“Is the bed uncomfortable?” I asked.

“A little,” she said. I felt bad. This wasn’t the right kind of room or bed for this. I’m so sorry, Yichun. I kissed her again, all over her body without raising my head.

“Whose are those high heels?” she suddenly asked.

She was looking up at the shoes on the shelf. “They belong to you,” I said.

“Nice try! But I don’t believe it. Why would you have my shoes?” So then I told her the whole story. Yichun’s eyes misted over, and she held me tight. “Thank you!” she said, planting a kiss on my forehead. I got the shoes down.

“If it’s written in the stars that we should meet, then these shoes will be just your size!” I slipped them on her feet. Good God, they fit her perfectly!

I told her to take them with her, but she said she’d leave them here, so whenever I looked at them, I could think of her. I wasn’t having that. I took her old shoes and put them up on the shelf. They would really give me something to remember her by. And when she went home with her new shoes on, then she could think of me.

Finally, I was a man with a sex life! After she’d gone, I found one of her long hairs. I carefully folded it in a piece of paper and put it under the pillow.

From Happy Dreams, translated by Nicky Harman (Amazon Crossing, 8.99)


Jia_Pingwa_290Jia Pingwa was born in 1952 in Dihua Village, Danfeng County, Shaanxi Province, and went on to graduate from Northwestern University in Xi’an, where he still lives. Jia stands with Mo Yan and Yu Hua as one of the biggest names in contemporary Chinese literature. Happy Dreams is published in paperback by Amazon Crossing.
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Nicky Harman lives in the UK and is co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors). She has translated a wide range of Chinese authors of fiction, non-fiction and poetry and contributed to literary magazines such as AsianCha, Chutzpah, and Words Without Borders.

Nicky Harman: Never happier