T/N: Apologies for the lack of individual replies to comments the past couple of weeks… Real life has been pretty hectic lately. But I still do read and appreciate them all, so thank you!
Day 05 21:28
Having finished colouring the multi-coloured rabbit, Bubu completed his great achievement. He blew on the paper in satisfaction, gave the children’s cell phone to Song Ran, and ran to the bathroom by himself to wash his hands. Seeing that the throne was unoccupied, Bu Doudou didn’t delay for even a second; it swiftly squeezed its massive bulk into Song Ran’s arms and curled up to form a big ball of warm fur.
“M-Mr He.” As Song Ran faced the cell phone, he started to stammer from the very first word. “Did you sleep well?”
He Zhiyuan opened the window curtains, allowing the morning sunlight to pour in. The yard consisted of a large spread of neatly-mown lawn and shrubs, and the flowers were in full bloom; a foraging squirrel running along the fence stopped halfway and turned its head to look in his direction.
He was in a very good mood. “I slept very well. How about you?”
Song Ran rubbed at the cat’s ears. “I… also slept very well.”
It was just that a little something happened while dreaming—I dreamed of you. Although it was only a blurry back view, simply… simply looking at that back view alone was too much for him to take.
Song Ran didn’t dare to say this out loud, but his heart itched badly. His Adam’s apple involuntarily bobbed, letting out a clear swallowing sound. He Zhiyuan heard it and laughed softly. “It seems that you dreamed of a feast?”
“Uh… I dreamed of cr… crab.”
Song Ran babbled whatever came to mind.
He Zhiyuan: “You like eating crab?”
This was actually true. Song Ran had particular tastes; he liked all shelled seafood.
He Zhiyuan then asked, “Which kind do you like, hairy crab or king crab?”
“Neither of them, it’s actually the commonplace swimming crab.” Song Ran said, “Hairy crabs are too fatty, so it makes them pretty greasy. I don’t really like eating them.”
It wasn’t like he had many opportunities to eat them anyway.
Every autumn, when they were in season, the ‘100 yuan per jin’ price tags that sprouted up everywhere could scare Song Ran into backing up ten steps. As a little painter who earned only three or four thousand a month, it was already not an easy feat to fill his stomach. Things such as crabs… At most, he could only look at them.
But He Zhiyuan noted down his preferences, then suggested, “There’s a new crab place that just opened up at Heshenghui. After I come back, I’ll find a day to take you there for a meal.”
“Huh?” Song Ran felt overwhelmed. “No way, no way, how could I make you spend money? It’s too embarrassing.”
He Zhiyuan didn’t mind spending money on him, and in any case, a meal of crab costing more than a thousand yuan couldn’t even be considered spending. He settled this matter with a few sentences, not giving Song Ran a second chance to decline. Just as he was getting ready to ask what else Song Ran liked, the slap-slap sounds of slippers on the floor came from the other end of the phone, followed by Bubu’s cute and soft voice. “Big Brother, I washed two apples, one big and one small. Do you want the one on the left side or one on the right side?”
Song Ran thought for a while, then said, “I want the one on the right side.”
Bubu burst into giggles. “The one on the right is the small one, and the one on the left is the big one. Big Brother’s luck is too bad. Guess again!”
Song Ran consequently corrected himself. “Then, the one on the left.”
“You guessed correctly, so I’ll give it to you!” Bubu said with delight, “Big Brother eats the big one and Bubu eats the small one. It’s only right like this.”
After that, He Zhiyuan heard the crunching sounds of an apple being gnawed on; at first it was indistinct, but then it became much clearer. It seemed as if someone had deliberately scooted closer to the receiver to show off to him how crisp, fresh, and sweet this apple was.
“Dada, did you hear it?” Bubu said with easygoing joy, “Big Brother and I are eating apples. You aren’t at home, so there’s none for you!”
After a few days of not seeing him, he even learned how to taunt others.
He Zhiyuan thought it was funny. Song Ran also was so amused that he couldn’t take it anymore; he reached out and poked Bubu’s little cheek. “You’re not allowed to bully Dad.”
Bubu nodded, bit off another large bite of his apple, then wiggled his small bottom back and forth, wanting to squeeze Bu Doudou out of the throne. Irate, The emperor Bu Doudou unsheathed its sharp claws and dug them into Song Ran’s pyjama pants while crying in a low tone, but in the end, it still lost the competition of physique; after getting shoved off by Bubu’s bottom, it rolled into the pile of cushions.
By the time the clock reached 9:50, Bubu and Bu Doudou had already reconciled with each other. They were lying on the carpet together, playing with a bell that was rolled that way, then pushed back this way; its jingling filled the room.
Spreading out a piece of drawing paper, Song Ran started chatting about a new conversation topic with Mr He—it was about his profession.
Based on his experience, He Zhiyuan thought it was obvious to assume that such a young person who was excellent at both taking care of children and painting would be a primary school arts teacher. Swiftly sketching the rough draft of a commercial work, Song Ran smiled as he said, “It would be nice if I had such a stable job, but unfortunately, I don’t. I’m an illustrator who paints children’s book illustrations, creating illustrations that go with the fairy tales that children read. My income isn’t too stable—sometimes it’s enough, and sometimes it’s not. I guess you can call it freelance work.”
“It sounds very interesting and rather warm.” He Zhiyuan became curious. “At the beginning, how did you think of getting into this career?”
The tip of Song Ran’s pencil stopped as he recalled the memories. “Didn’t I mention that my family had a lot of younger siblings? With lots of younger siblings, although it was very lively, the troubles were not few, either. Looking at picture books was a big problem. The children all liked to look at the picture books, but our parents didn’t have any money to spare to buy too many, so we passed those few volumes back and forth with everyone else waiting in line, one after another—it was extremely pitiful, and sometimes there would even be fights. At that time, I was the oldest in the family and could go to the book store by myself, so I’d often copy the new picture books for them to look at. The little sprouts would sit in a circle around me, and once I draw one, they would read one. After a long time, I felt that I seemed to have a bit of talent in this respect, so I might as well take it as my profession.”
Actually, this span of experience was extremely harsh; it was far from the warmth that Song Ran had described, but after a long time, he had made the most of the adversity and treated it as a common household story.
After imagining the image of Song Ran being surrounded by a flock of toddlers, He Zhiyuan thought that it was natural and not in the least incongruous; it seemed as though this youth was born to be part of the rowdy bunch of children. He became even more curious and asked, “Afterwards, where did you study art? S City Academy of Fine Arts?”
Song Ran stiffened, unsure as to how he should reply.
Academy of Fine Arts.
Such a lofty sanctuary of the arts had always been a place that he could only look at, but not reach.
Song Ran had only studied up until junior high. His painting foundations were shaky, and the amount of theoretical knowledge he had was even closer to zero. The art skills treasured by the children in the welfare institution were worthless in the industry. In the first two years that he tried to make a living, he was surrounded by a group of professionally-trained artists, and his submissions were repeatedly rejected. Now, his situation had improved slightly; most of the time, his words could be backed up by his actual strength. However, in certain situations, his educational background was still a shortcoming that he couldn’t make up for. Besides not having parents, this was one of the few things that made him feel inadequate.
Near the children’s magazine agency was a high school. Every time Song Ran went to turn in his work, he would see some teenagers clad in high school uniforms pass by, laughing and chatting, and be unable to suppress the envy in his heart.
“I… I’m not an Academy of Fine Arts graduate, and I haven’t formally learned to paint.” Song Ran was somewhat flustered. “Previously, I had taken a few lessons with an old painter, so I suppose it could basically be considered self-study.”
Separated by the phone, He Zhiyuan wasn’t able to sense the subtle changes in his emotions; he simply assumed Song Ran had pursued his passion, taking time out of his studies to learn how to draw, and offered him a few sentences of praise for being courageous.
Song Ran laughed dryly and said, “I guess so.”
But his heart felt empty, and he could no longer continue sketching. He had no choice but to put down his brush.
Because he was afraid Mr He would ask more probing questions that he couldn’t answer, he hurriedly tossed the conversation topic back over to the other man, asking in return, “Then what about you? You’re able to make a robot like Little Q, so at the very least you must have… um, must have a master’s degree right?”
He mentioned a degree that, in his mind’s eye, was considered extraordinary.
He Zhiyuan smiled. “More or less. I have a PhD in the field of artificial intelligence.”
“Uh, that’s… that’s very amazing.”
He hadn’t even heard of such a thing before.
After awkwardly expressing his admiration, Song Ran had nothing more to say. Feeling increasingly depressed, he thought that, as expected, the distance between Mr He and himself was vast.
The conversation between the two of them regarding their professions wasn’t going too smoothly. He Zhiyuan also slowly noticed it, after which he said, “How about we talk about something else? For example, weekend plans for Bubu and yourself. Do you have anything lined up for tomorrow?”
“I do!” Song Ran’s spirit perked up. “I want to take Bubu to Happy Valley.1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Valley_(amusement_parks)
He Zhiyuan happily gave his permission.
It had already been a long time since he took Bubu to the amusement park. Since Song Ran was willing to take on parental duties and accompany Bubu to happily play for an entire day, he was delighted. “Wait a bit, I’ll buy tickets for you.”
Song Ran hurriedly said, “There’s no need, Lin Hui already bought tickets.”
He Zhiyuan unconsciously frowned.
“Mm-hm, it’s like this—she wanted to make up for last night’s mistake, so she bought tickets for us.” Song Ran explained, “Tomorrow she’ll accompany us, and we’ll go together. Do you mind?”
He Zhiyuan looked slightly sullen, and he instinctively felt uncomfortable.
Frankly, he did mind.
It wasn’t that he bore a grudge, and it wasn’t that he was prejudiced against Lin Hui—at He Zhiyuan’s age, his tolerance wasn’t so low that he would quibble about things with a young lady who had just entered society. What he really minded was his own absence.
Song Ran was taking Bubu to the amusement park. If there really had to be a third person present to accompany them, then that person should obviously be him. He was Bubu’s father and Song Ran’s friend, so only his companionship could be considered right and proper. Lin Hui’s well-intentioned ‘make up for things’ reason could not be called wrong, but it made him feel indignant at his ‘territory’ being invaded.
What was more irksome was that he was far away on the other side of the ocean and could not be in two places at once; he was perfectly aware the ‘territory’ lost could not be snatched back.
“Mr He?” On the other end of the line, Song Ran called out to him several times in succession. “I’ll pay attention to Bubu’s personal safety and won’t let him play with anything dangerous. Lin Hui will also help me watch him. Is this okay?”
Song Ran expectantly asked again.
He Zhiyuan forced out the words, “It’s fine, you guys go have fun. Remember to take lots of pictures.”
After he finished speaking, he worried that he hadn’t participated enough, so with a parental attitude, he added a few more sentences. “You shouldn’t play with anything too dangerous either, especially the drop tower and roller coaster. The equipment isn’t new, so it’s easy for accidents to occur. Tomorrow, I’ll have the company send a car to pick you up. Bring Bubu back early in the afternoon, and call me as soon as you return. Got it?”
Song Ran held the cell phone, feeling a burst of warmth in his heart.
Bring Bubu back home early, and call me as soon as you return… To him, these kinds of words had always been the kind that he could only hear in TV dramas. He assumed that these were merely an actor’s lines and that nobody would express concern in this manner in reality, but He Zhiyuan had said the exact same thing to him.
It was very heart-warming.
Song Ran nodded, replying, “Mr He, I’ll return home early.”