Every day Tao Xiaodong worked until he was covered in grime, even getting some inside his sweatshirt and on his cap.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call him mud-caked.
“Uncle Tao, have some water.” A twelve-year-old boy said to Tao Xiaodong and put two bottles of mineral water next to him.
Tao Xiaodong twisted open the cap and downed half a bottle in a go, quenching his thirst.
He had been here for several days now, and the boy had warmed up to him, squatting on the stone next to Tao Xiaodong, watching an excavator in operation.
Tao Xiaodong asked him, “Where’s your dad”
“He went down with the car to buy stuff.
What do you need him for, Uncle Tao”
Tao Xiaodong waved a hand.
“Nah, I was just curious.”
He sat on the stone while the boy squatted.
The sky was overcast and sunless.
Deep down, most men liked watching engineering work, and the little ones were no exception.
Tao Xiaodong smiled as he asked the boy next to him, “Do you like it When I was a kid, I liked this kind of thing.”
The boy returned a bashful smile.
“It’s all right.”
Tao Xiaodong chatted with him for a while.
His phone rang; he took it out of his pocket.
“Da Huang,” Tao Xiaodong greeted and asked, “what’s up”
“Not much, just had dinner with Qiao Wei and the rest.
What about you”
“I’m still here, watching the construction work.” Tao Xiaodong twisted open the cap to drink more water, clamping the phone between his shoulder and his ear.
“Are you done with recording What did the production crew say”
“What can they say It’s enough to placate them.
If they turned their nose at me I’d just leave on the spot.” Da Huang guffawed.
“Can the manager’s name not be resonant enough”
Tao Xiaodong said with a smile, “Positively earth-shattering.”
In actuality, Tao Xiaodong had discussed it over a meal with the assistant director of the programme.
At the start, he had followed Da Huang over to make introductions, find out more about what the whole deal was and the flow, and personally check it out.
That done, he went on his merry way.
Da Huang had never taken it too seriously in the first place.
When Tao Xiaodong tagged along for the discussions, Da Huang heaved a sigh.
“Why would such a small job require you What’s the point of you coming”
If Tao Xiaodong could count as half a businessman, then Huang Yida was a businessman through and through.
He understood tattoos, though he didn’t know how to nor would he ever.
After working this long with Tao Xiaodong, everyone in the industry knew him.
Tattoo talk went to Director Tao, and business talk went to Director Huang.
It was no trifle matter to have Director Huang sitting on the panel of judges; he was the founder of Dong Da Domain.
He was more apt than Tao Xiaodong when it came to finicky affairs like recording a show.
He wouldn’t offend people nor would it affect him.
When the show premiered, considering Dong Da Domain’s clout in the tattoo scene, having the brand on the line-up would be enough for the show to get the buzz they hoped to achieve.
In any case, industry insiders would understand that this was a token appearance.
Let alone Tao Xiaodong, none of the tattoo artists at his studio were sent up.
“The next recording will be ten days later, I’ll be leaving tomorrow.
They powdered me up for the programme and I ended up getting a giant pimple.” Da Huang laughed and cursed.
“Would I have to borrow some make-up removal from my wife next time I come”
It was comical hearing such words come from him.
Tao Xiaodong chuckled.
“I have wet wipes, I’ll give you a pack next time.”
“Wet wipes Are they useful” asked Da Huang.
“Quite I haven’t checked around what else there is, but anyway it’s to remove stuff.”
He couldn’t quite spit the words “remove make-up” out.
There were times for events and interview photo shoots where people powdered make-up on him, and if it were for magazines they’d even go for even fancier make-up, doing up his eyebrows and contours and whatnot.
Tao Xiaodong, a man about town, had to show his face often.
The visual of these two uncouth grandpas discussing such a topic over the phone was a sight to behold.
Tao Xiaodong couldn’t keep it up any longer, saying, “Yep, okay topic closed, I’ll stop nagging.”
The two bantered with each other over the line for a long time, as though cursed, and then hung up the phone.
Tao Xiaodong couldn’t do without Da Huang.
There were many people that he couldn’t do without.
He used to go on yearlong and half-year trips and many people had said that he lived life freely.
But that wasn’t true.
He heavily depended on these relationships.
Besides his younger brother, there was also Da Huang, Tian Yi, and many other close friends.
Tao Xiaodong was never truly free.
He constantly feared loss and couldn’t do away with any of the important figures in his life.
“Uncle, is it true that it’s really cold over there where you’re from” the boy asked him.
The mirth on Tao Xiaodong’s face had yet to fade.
“It’ll definitely feel cold to you, but I’m already used to it.”
“I’ve never seen snow before.
I want to go up north to see snow one day,” said the boy, smiling.
“You can consider applying for university there.
Then, you can see it any time in the winter, there’s always some by the roadside.”
The boy considered it then shook his head.
“I can’t, I can’t leave my dad.”
Tao Xiaodong turned over to him.
The furthest that the boy had ever been out was the county at the foot of the mountain and he spent most of the year up here.
Tao Xiaodong reached out to pat his head and his hand got dirty.
Chuckling, neither said a thing.
The boy’s father was a principal of the elementary school on the mountain.
There weren’t many students, a hundred in total and among them, half were blind.
The principal was already in his fifties.
In the past, he had gotten television coverage once and several documentaries had come to interview him.
He himself was partially sighted; he had visual impairment and needed to wear a vision aid.
In the documentaries, he said that he required teachers and he needed books.
It was not sustainable for him to depend entirely on the small teaching staff currently.
The government subsidies often were not granted, and he had put in a lot of his own money over the years.
The school was originally an elementary school in the mountain attended by children in mountain villages as well as a few visually impaired children from the county below.
During the interviews, he said that Braille paper was expensive.
There were no Braille printers in the mountains, so a single Braille book would have to be passed around several children to take turns touching.
Teaching these blind children alone posed a challenge.
After it was aired, charitable donations did come in, but even more blind children from poor families were also being sent up.
The small hostel behind the school was no longer sufficient.
He used to single-handedly monitor the few blind students in the hostel, but after the number of students increased he was unable to handle it on his own.
Tao Xiaodong visited for the first time five years back with two Braille printers, several tonnes of Braille paper, and many Braille teaching aids.
Presently, he was also the one sponsoring the construction of the new hostels behind the school.
Following the first time, Tao Xiaodong’s financial support to this school had never stopped, because this small school in the mountains was not as difficult to support as before.
The row of classrooms were constructed by the villagers so many years ago that the peripheral walls were already starting to crack, looking as though they would collapse at any moment.
This time, Tao Xiaodong directly stepped in, rebuilding the teaching area and the students collectively took a vacation.
Tao Xiaodong’s arrival this time was abrupt; he hadn’t given the principal advance notice.
The show location where he had gone with Da Huang before this wasn’t far from here, so he thought to drop by and have a look.
After coming, he worked daily from morning to night, getting all grimy.
At night, he stayed at the teachers’ hostel.
The principal had arranged a vacant bed for him and brand-new sheets and pillows, still smelling of unwashed starch.
Tao Xiaodong showered at the public facilities that night.
Upon returning to the hostel, Tang Suoyan’s message came in.
—Have you booked your flight
It had been two days since the phone call.
Tao Xiaodong was still finding it difficult to let his thoughts linger on Tang Suoyan.
After getting over the initial high, one could see things with clarity and thus review it in its entirety.
That night, Tang Suoyan had been passive from start to end; he was clear-headed the whole time.
It was hard to take.
Not the shyness after acts of intimacy or ill at sorts, just—it was embarrassing.
It was losing control in front of a clear-headed and collected man, the complete lack of self-restraint, a solo performance of a vulgar pantomime.
Tao Xiaodong sat on the cot and replied: Not yet.
Tang Suoyan’s response came swiftly: Okay.
Tao Xiaodong lowered his phone and sat there in silence for a while.
There was also a teacher in the hostel with him; a male who was in his fourth year of university for a diploma in education, who had volunteered to teach the children English for free.
The man had a slightly introverted nature and didn’t speak to Tao Xiaodong much.
He was asleep the moment he settled in.
Tao Xiaodong went to turn off the light.
Before he could return to the cot, his phone rang.
Tao Xiaodong glanced at the screen.
It was actually Tong Ning.
It was rather surprising.
Tao Xiaodong deliberated before going out to answer the call.
When he did, he went “Dr.
Tao Xiaodong found a stony ledge to sit on.
There was a small night light over at the construction works.
By this hour, the workers had turned in for the night and he was the only one outside.
Tong Ning greeted him back with a “Xiaodong.” It was surprising to hear his voice; it sounded very rough.
Maybe also feeling that his voice didn’t sound too good, he cleared his throat before he continued, “Am I disturbing you”
“No, it’s good.
What is it, Dr.
Tong” asked Tao Xiaodong.
“You can call me Tong Ning,” said Tong Ning.
Tao Xiaodong agreed then asked, “Why did you call”
Considering their relationship, it was unlikely that they would contact the other without cause.
The only time they had ever gotten in touch was to set an appointment for dinner, and even that was because of Tang Suoyan.
“I shouldn’t have called you.” Tong Ning cleared his throat again.
His voice really sounded very rough.
“It’s too impolite.”
Tao Xiaodong said, “Don’t worry about that.
Tell me what’s wrong.”
Tong Ning hesitated, then slowly said, “Today I… met up with Yan ge.”
Tao Xiaodong’s mouth parted.
After two seconds, he then uttered not a word but a simple “ah” of acknowledgement that he had heard him.
Perhaps Tong Ning himself hadn’t wanted to make the call, which was why he stalled with every word.
“I can’t tell if Yan ge was telling me the truth, so I want to ask you.
Are you… together now”
Tao Xiaodong unconsciously wanted to reply “not yet”, but thinking back on that night, there would be no strength behind those words.
Before he could respond, Tong Ning amended, “I don’t mean anything else.
He and I have already separated… it’s his choice what he wants to do.”
Someone this sociable would also get stuck at this time, lost for words.
After a long pause, Tao Xiaodong simply said “sorry.”
“Don’t say that.” He could hear Tong Ning take a deep breath.
His voice wasn’t quite steady.
“There’s nothing to apologise for.”
It wasn’t a happy subject, and the words came out stiffly.
After Tong Ning had a moment to gather himself, he spoke again, “Xiaodong, I’d like to ask… if you plan on… no, what are both of your plans Are you together for the novelty, or… is this a long-term thing”
The inky night in the mountains vastly differed from urban civilisation.
Apart from the small lamp up front and the moon overhead, Tao Xiaodong couldn’t make out anything else.
Every corner of the city was illuminated by street lights and residential lights which perpetually cast off a bit of shine.
The alpine darkness was overly still.
Gazing long into the peace and quiet shrouded in boundless darkness would stifle the heart.
Head lowered, Tao Xiaodong said, “I don’t know what Yan… Dr.
Tang has in mind.
I’ll leave that up to him.”
“What about you” Tong Ning asked directly.
Tao Xiaodong sat over there, various possible answers spinning in his head.
In the end, he still chose to speak the truth, “This definitely isn’t just a novelty to me.
You know my profession.
If I’m seeking novelty, I’m spoilt for choice.”
Tong Ning stayed silent for a long while.
Tao Xiaodong looked up to search for stars, unexpectedly finding none.
The weather in the mountains wasn’t all that great either, he guessed, just like how the starry sky in his childhood might be gone forever.
It was a shame that little kiddos these days were missing out on the experience of lying outside to see the stars.
Tao Xiaodong’s thoughts drifted impossibly far off, and only then did Tong Ning quietly say, “I understand.”
Tao Xiaodong didn’t know what to respond.
Any response he could give felt inappropriate.
He seldom ever found himself as at a loss for words as he was now.
However, he also genuinely felt apologetic to Tong Ning.
He was in a complicated mood; he had never felt anything negative for Tong Ning, but now his heart was complexed by the hint of an emotion that he couldn’t quite vocalise.
Tao Xiaodong said, “Get some rest.
Your voice doesn’t sound well.”
“Mm.” Tong Ning said, “It’s all right.
You should get some rest, too.
Sorry for holding you up.”
Tao Xiaodong said, “Nothing of that sort, don’t be a stranger.”
The cicada calls were discordant but not noisy.
In this quiet environment, two people in an awkward situation were on an awkward phone call.
But they were still cordial to each other, politely making small talk and saying goodbyes.
What a joke.
After hanging up, Tao Xiaodong returned to the hostel.
From the breathing pattern, it seemed that the university student was sound asleep.
Tao Xiaodong was fumbling in the dark back to his own cot when his phone vibrated again.
Tang Suoyan: I tried to call but couldn’t get through.
Don’t stay up too late.
Tao Xiaodong replied: I was on the phone just now, Yan ge.
You, too, don’t stay up too late.
Tang Suoyan: I almost thought that you blocked my number.
Tao Xiaodong smiled from the other end, replying: How could I Where has your mind gone
Tang Suoyan: Step in my shoes and tell me what you’d think.
It was an ordinary sentence, yet coming from Tang Suoyan, it brought back memories that threatened to break Tao Xiaodong’s brain.
He hurriedly changed the subject: Have you been busy lately
The subject change was a bit stiff.
It wasn’t smoothly done, but Tao Xiaodong couldn’t care a whit about the execution now.
Tang Suoyan: I’m not busy, just not feeling too good.
Tao Xiaodong immediately asked: What’s wrong How so
Tang Suoyan: It’s been snowing the past few days.
My hand hurts.
Tao Xiaodong frowned, asking: It hurts on snowy days as well
Tang Suoyan: Yeah.
Tang Suoyan: My hand gets cold.
Tao Xiaodong’s brow was still creased: Do you still have medicine Warm your hand with a towel and stick on a patch.
Tang Suoyan said: I’ve run out.