By Rani Drew, UK (Published in Issue 8)
It was a full-moon night. A clear round moon looked down on earth, exuding quiet splendour, illumining the park evenly in the falling night. On almost every full-moon, I would make a point of going to the People’s Park. Even winter time would fail to deter me from this pleasurable indulgence, though summer and autumn were the high points. Mostly nothing special happened, apart from couples dancing on the round platform in the centre, or lovers sitting on the grass in silent intimacy. But this evening turned out to be different, most peculiar. It was many moons ago, but a clear memory of it still plays on my mind.
As I got to the gates of the People’s Park, I could hear the music riding the sound waves from the dance floor. I headed straight to it. A full-moon is always a special night for couples. I find it fascinating to watch the Chinese dancing in parks. They display an unbelievable talent for western dancing. Nothing short of classical staple for them! Waltz, foxtrot, tango, salsa; you name it, they do it; not only the young aspire to perfecting various styles, but also the ageing and the aged.
With the music striking the last notes, the dancers stopped. A general chatter of comparing notes about steps and style arose. I decided to take a walk around the park, before the starting of the next piece. Walking on cobbled paths is considered good for your health. The Chinese claim that the protruding shape of cobbles makes contact with the soles of your feet, sending sensations up your body, clearing the pathways to the brain. I was enjoying the labyrinthine zigzags, looking closely at the floral patterns so clear in the moonlight that I could see the colouring of every stone. I was busy comparing the Chinese lay-out to the Roman mosaic floorings, when I saw a woman standing in the middle of the path. For a fleeting second, it struck me that she was very still, hardly breathing. I walked past her without giving it another thought. Soon I felt someone was behind me; thinking the person was trying to go ahead, I moved to the side, but to my surprise, no one did. Silly me! Why would anyone hurry on a night like this?
The music had started. It was Salsa this time, my favourite style. I hurried so as not to miss the beginning. Soon, it became clear that the person behind had also speeded up. On getting to the platform I took up a front position where I could have a good view of the dancers. In contrast to the solemnity of the waltz before, the salsa tune was inspiring a jollier mood in the dancers. One of these days, I thought, I ought to take up dancing. Often my partner had shown enthusiasm for taking to this form of entertainment, but I had been resistant, not sure if I would enjoy dancing as much as I did watching others dance. Was it strange to opt for objectivity? Or just different aesthetics? As I was questioning my inclination to dancing, I felt someone was standing close behind me, almost breathing over me. I quickly turned round to find out what was going on. A young woman with a very serious look stood behind me, staring straight ahead. At the dancing couples? I couldn’t be sure. She seemed awkward but not alarming. So I relaxed and continued to watch the rhythmic movements of the couples as they swayed in body dialogue with each other. It wasn’t long after that the dance ended in loud clapping from the viewers and bursts of laughter from the performers. Having become aware of the woman behind me, I somehow listened for her clapping, as if that would make her like everyone else. Once again I looked back to confirm my conclusion, but saw her rigid as before. She had neither clapped nor given way to any appreciative expression. This time I was alarmed. Who was she? And what did she want of me? What was I going to do? The university campus was not far, but I still had to walk some distance. China is probably the safest place for a female to go out at night. Yet I felt threatened by a young woman stalking me. I began to work out ways of shaking off my pursuer before getting to the road. Thinking of various ways, I worked out a strategy of first speeding up, then tricking her by taking a quick round of the park and then suddenly slipping out by the back exit. My heart was pounding from fear of being pursued by a stranger. What was disturbing was the realization that a grown woman like me could so easily take fright.
As I hurried on, putting my plan into operation, I felt a surge of strong resentment at having to cut short my pleasure trip to the park, a special one on this occasion. Never mind, I thought, let me first get home safely. So, instead of taking the cobbled path this time, I headed for the main approach to the Martyrs’ Monument which lay on the north side of the park, as a way of dodging off. I can walk very fast when I want to, but I never did that in a park. The Martyrs’ Monument was put up in the early 1950s as a tribute to all the men from this province who had died on the Long March. Quite a long list of names it added up, reaching all the way to the top of the high panel. Many such monuments were put up all over China, with different names. At least there was more diversity in these monuments than in the statues of Mao Zedong which went up in hundreds all over China cast identically, the same Long March coat, the same hand gesture raised high to bless the Chinese nation. According to my escape strategy, I was to assess the intention of my pursuer while circumambulating the monument. She was there behind me, probably not so close as before, but only marginally. This time I had no doubt that I was being stalked. But why? The thought unnerved me even more now. I decided it was time to take direct action, but not at the monument, I thought, as not too many people were around, and the incident could take an unexpected turn.
When I came round to the front and in full view of people, I stopped and turned back to give her a full warning stare. She immediately turned her back on me. But before she did that, I caught a glimpse of her face for the first time - her stature and her clothes. A round face, with the hair swept back in a simple plat, she was a small-built woman, not so young as I had thought before, but dressed up as a much younger person. Her dress was what threw me. There was a time-warp in her clothes. She had a red scarf around her neck gathered at the front and held by a brooch with some Chinese writing on it, over a full-sleeved blouse tucked into a baggy pair of indigo blue trousers, which hung over buckled black cloth shoes. I was ready to have it out with her, demanding why she was following me, but she kept herself stiffly turned away from me.
Having been defeated in my confrontational plan, I decided to get home as quickly as possible. Why did I feel so endangered by a young woman walking behind me? It wasn’t as if she had a gun on her or looked like a psycho straight out of a mental home.
My stride became longer and speedier. I had not taken into account that hers would too. I could now hear a thumping noise following me. It must be the flat cloth shoes, I concluded. The more I thought, the less I understood why she was stalking me. After all this time, it suddenly dawned on me that stalkers didn’t keep so close to their targets. So, what could I call her, and why was she shadowing me? Was it the full moon that was affecting her? My first fleeting glimpse of her was someone absolutely still in full moonlight. The Chinese believe that you could get the moon energy if you absorbed the light from the full moon, especially when it fell on the same day as the Mid-Autumn Festival. A loony! A popular word in the West for people who suffered from the fullness of the moon, more women than men. Oceans swell, the high tides overflow on full moon nights. Do women too? But why such grim demeanour? Finding no answers to my puzzlements, and still hearing her close behind me, I took solace in the thought that once I reached the main gate, I would be all right. The guards didn’t let people in without IDs. Well, I had certainly met my Waterloo that night! As I went through the gates, expecting my follower to be stopped, she sailed through behind me, continuing as before. The guards must have thought she was with me.
I was close to our compound gate and confident she wouldn’t dare to come into the foreigners’ residence. Wrong again. She did. Another round of strategies. Should I dive into our apartment quickly and bang the door shut, announcing in no uncertain terms that that was the end of her shadowing spree. Yet, fear gripped me once again. What if she stood outside watching the house for the rest of the night or turned up regularly on other nights? To put her off the scent I went up to the administrative office to get help. It was firmly locked. I guess the watchman had gone to see the fireworks. I was now left to my own resources. Adding to my panic, a big blast of noise shattered the silence, the sky burst into many stars, for a minute shattering the sedate moonlight into countless bits. Suddenly things clicked. It was the 1st October, the National Holiday, celebrating China’s Liberation Day, 1949.
I stood in the porch and looked at my follower, a ghost from the past. The red scarf brooched with a ring brought memories of China’s Young Pioneers in the heyday of the Communist movement, which culminated in the Cultural Revolution. But such grimness? I still persisted in finding the answer to that question. A sudden realisation dawned on me. The lost tribe of leader-cheering crowds, now adrift in a consumer society! So was that it? Again she stood immobile, absolutely still, fully lit by the moonlight. Was she aware of me, or was I just someone she wanted to follow, someone she could tag on to, someone who was walking, taking her back to the days of leaders and followers. God! What a mess! Instantly my fear of her was gone. I felt it coming off me, like a piece of clothing.
I walked down the few steps, walked past her, went up our steps, unlocked the door, put the light on in the front room, drew the curtains, not bothering to look out, had a drink of water, turned off the light downstairs, and went up to the bedroom; switched the light on and went to draw the curtains. As I pulled the panels together, I couldn’t resist casting an eye out, to see if she had gone. She hadn’t, she was still standing in the same place, bathed in the moonlight, not looking up at the window, just standing in the same lost way, as when I first saw her on the cobbled path in the People’s Park.
Rani Drew is a poet and fiction-writer. She has published poetry and short stories in North American, UK and Indian magazines. Some short stories have been published in translation, in French, Romanian and Hungarian journals. In 2005, Skrev Press, UK published Around the World in Twelve Stories, a collection of short stories. In 2010, Whyte Tracks published her first novel, The Dog's Tale, set in Hungary.