Fan Hong, the aspiring singer, is crouching on the ground eating out of an upturned dustbin. Wang Liheng, the former vagrant, is grabbing snacks from the hands of bewildered commuters. Huang Ni, the grieving mother, was last seen sleeping on the bathroom floor.
Li Lei sits on the bench in her turquoise gown enjoying the breeze in her hair. In her years at Kangning Hospital, she has seen every type of madness: depression, dementia, the madness of a man who threw a jar of acid at a woman for not returning his love, the madness of those who run down the street naked. Even with the budget as stretched as it is, she shakes her head at the incompetence that led to their abandonment at the station.
Fang Yan sits beside her.
“Where’d you get that money?” Li Lei asks, looking at the small change in his hand.
“People gave it to me.”
“Begging?” Li Lei was the youngest patient when she entered the hospital. Now in her late 30s, she is the one who shows newcomers how to keep rubber floors clean and wash and fold incontinence-soaked bed sheets.
Fang Yan looks at her with a giggle then turns away as she asks “are you saving up to escape?” Though none are in possession of their ID cards, and bus tickets and civilian clothing are not given away for free, Changping Station is a uniquely opportune place from which to flee.
Huang Ni wanders past, looking drowsy, not appearing to notice them. She received just 10,000 Yuan when her son was killed in a hit-and-run and was committed to the hospital after trying too hard to get more. Her hair is wet, as if she has just got out of the shower.
“What are we doing here?” asks Fang Yan.
“The bus was supposed to take us back to Kangning.”
“I heard Nurse Gao say something about discharge papers.”
“Nurse Gao says a lot of things.”
If she is discharged, Li Lei’s brother, a taxi driver and confirmed bachelor, would be delighted to have her, though they would have to share a bed to begin with. He has a protruding nasal hair and she imagines it tickling her as she sleeps.
“Actually,” says Fang Yan, “the money is for you.”
“What do I need it for?”
“I once heard a great line in a foreign movie,” Fang Yan says. Li Lei is consistently blown away by the sophistication of some of the younger patients. “It goes, some birds were not meant to be locked up. Their feathers are just too bright.”
For the first time since hearing the news that her father died, Li Lei’s eyes begin to fill with water. “I like my fellow patients,” she says. “And I think they like me.” In truth, Li Lei is more like a nurse, helping out with grooming hour, holding trembling hands still to clip fungus-discolored nails, diplomatically refusing to give forbidden hairstyles.
“It’s true. You take your eye off them for a few hours and now look at them.” They look around the courtyard through the entrance of the ticket hall then look at each other and smile. His smile is disproportionately broad, which makes him look even younger.
“What’s the song they all sing?” Fang Yan asks.
“Let the World Fill with Love?”
“Sing it. It’s the only way to get them together.”
“Haha, I’m not sure the sane would appreciate a serenade from that lot.”
“Sing it. We could earn you a fortune.”
“It’d only draw attention.”
“Come on,” says Fang Yan, meeting her gaze with his dark eyes, looking as kind and as clueless as her brother. The problem with these “outside the mainstream” men is that they are all the same.
Her throat is not cleared, but Li Lei tentatively sings the opening lines of the 1986 hit. At the start of the second verse, she coughs and becomes more tuneful. Fang Yan joins in. Called to attention, Wang Liheng trundles over and waits for his line. Fan Hong stands up from her dustbin and turns toward them. They reach the chorus:
Whoa-oh-oh-oh! Year after year!
Fang Yan runs to a nearby shop. By the time he comes back, more than half of the abandoned patients are in full voice. On the back of a fallen sandwich board he writes in black marker explaining that they are singing to raise money for their hospital.
Wang Liheng, a homosexual who was disowned by his parents and ended up on the street, is one of the most enthusiastic participants. Kangning he claims is the only place where he can acquire daily meals and a roof over his head, so every year fakes schizophrenia to avoid release. He winks at Fang Yan.
The pennies start to pour in.
On New Year’s Day the year she turned twelve, Li Lei woke up to find herself bleeding inexplicably. Hearing the screams, her mother rushed in and explained that she had grown up.
Excited to become a woman, Li Lei ran into the courtyard jumping and dancing until she was called in for breakfast.
During her afternoon nap, her father came into the bedroom and locked the door. “Is this where the blood comes from?” he asked. “Does it feel nice when Papa rubs you there?”
This was the first time she could remember being naked in front of anyone except in the segregated public baths. Her father noticed her shivering and warned her not to tell anyone, otherwise she would be paraded down the streets wearing a dunce cap and have black ink thrown at her, like the people she heard about in Cultural Revolution stories.
Every day after lunch, her father used the excuse that her brother did not take an afternoon nap to lock him out and climbed into her bed while she was resting, rubbing against her with the hard thing on his lower body.
She grew thinner and fell seriously ill, but even after being sent to hospital, her father often came to “snuggle up”. As a respected military official, he could explain away her screams by saying she had inherited his fierce temper.
During shower time, when surrounded by nurses, Li Lei would try to run away, terrified of being touched. The first time she escaped into the car park she enjoyed the breeze on her whole body and the snow on her soles.
It was years before she finally escaped the hospital grounds completely. Running heedlessly among traffic, climbing the central railing and then running some more. Some drivers had to slam on the brakes and swerve. Even if one were to react too late, so what. Eighteen was a good age to die. Death would be like sleep, her only hobby. It would save her from being sent home and gradually becoming as withered and unattractive as her mother.
After they subdued her, she was deemed a high suicide risk and sent to Kangning where they diagnosed her with headlice and shaved her head. She liked the way her new look diverted the attention of the opposite sex.
The segregated dormitory contained six iron bedsteads and one wardrobe per room. Though it lacked the features of her parents’ house (photographs, calendars, potted plants), its iron door and crowdedness made her feel safe. Silence terrified her. At Kangning even at night there was always the gurgling sewage pipes whose tentacles wrapped around the whole city.
She spent the early days at Kangning catching up on years of lost sleep. After that, Li Lei became one of the more popular figures in the hospital, using her supple body to lead the morning and evening dance exercises.
Patients with tales of careers on the outside as police, firefighters, decorators and engineers came and went, many leaving phone numbers, hoping to see Li Lei in civilian clothes. Most of this goodwill felt as tepid and obligatory as when her mother said “I love you.” Only one patient seemed truly sincere about giving her a life on the outside.
When he arrived, Fang Yan was not used to doing mundane tasks like mopping and folding sheets. Older patients mocked his slowness and pretty little hands. Only Li Lei and Hospital Principal Li Tiebang showed the gentleness he was used to on the outside. In other hospitals, patients were turfed out like unwanted hotel guests if unable to pay their way. At Kangning, they were not free to leave, which meant that, as a medical professional, Li Tiebang was something of a messiah, and he enjoyed the company of people of his own class.
Though they seldom touched and were never fully alone together, Li Lei could sense his desire and for once was not scared of intimacy.
A senior at Shenzhen University who had a nervous breakdown ahead of his finals, Fang Yan was free to return to his studies whenever he felt ready, yet at every meeting he had with Li Tiebang, he unsuccessfully raised the issue of Li Lei getting a discharge.
Sometimes when leading a tone deaf arrhythmic rendition of “Let the World Be Filled with Love”, Li Lei would glance at Fang Yan and struggle to suppress her sadness, picturing him arguing fruitlessly in that office where The Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders rested on the desk. She also envied the fire in his head that had not yet been extinguished.
The Kangning patients have gathered in an unshapely circle of turquoise gowns. Huang Ni has the best voice. She was a nightclub singer, when the manager who promised to take her career to the next level turned out to only offer one thing. Her singing has always been good and for once she seems to be enjoying it. With her quota of sleep fulfilled during the day, Li Lei often lies in her bunk after lights out, kept awake by Huang Ni’s screaming.
Patients take turns to sing songs from their childhoods and youths, giving their ages away. When they run out of new ones, they go back to “Let the World Be Filled with Love”, which they can now do without Li Lei’s leadership.
Fang Yan extends both hands toward her, handing over 300 Yuan. “Poying Costume Store on the first floor,” he nods toward the precinct in the shadow of Chongshang Department Store. “I saw a brown dress there, perfect for your age and waist line.”
Li Lei is conscious of the sound her slippers make on the concrete, though the closer she gets to the shop the more confident she is that attention is being concentrated on her friends.
Though she never got the hang of being beautiful, the dress that Fang Yan recommended, with its white rose design slanting down the front is something she can accept, maybe even be proud of. She holds it up to her face and inhales the fresh cotton before feeling self-conscious and paying the 70 Yuan.
Turning out of the shop, the day feels lighter as evening rush hour approaches and crowds begin to gather. Fang Yan has sidled toward the shop.
“You don’t need ID to get a bus ticket,” Fang Yan whispers to her, pointing across the courtyard to where a yellow bus slithers between idle vehicles. Huang Ni, a huge fan of Li Lei, follows Fang Yan and several others flock behind her.
“The bathrooms are over there.” Fang Yan ushers Li Lei in the right direction, his hand on the small of her back, the dress sagging over her right arm.
His skeletal frame and lack of experience at defusing difficult situations make him unable to stop his fellow mental patients inching in the direction of the toilets. She has enough money to go to Shenzhen (where her brother lives), Hubei (where her mother has returned), and many other places from which she can wait for Fang Yan.
Outside her impromptu dressing room, the patients form a lopsided guard of honour, the station’s security apparatus still ominously out of sight. Li Lei steps out, a look no man has seen in twenty years. Still trying to calm the crowd, Fang Yan is the last to notice. Li Lei grins, raises her arms and turns the last remaining ignorant heads with a loud sigh of nostalgia.
Voluntarily or not, Fang Yan’s right hand reaches toward the part of his anatomy that can ruin a woman’s life. Li Lei’s soles make minimal contact with the sun-fried pavement as she starts her run toward the busy road.