Celine, Letting Go of The Past

A Chinese woman in traditional dress came to tell me this story.

My story starts on a train. I am boarding it, a young girl travelling away from my family to start working in the city. I feel rather afraid and very alone. My uncle and aunt have made arrangements for me to stay with friends of theirs. These people have found work for me. I am to work in a factory and to pay them rent and to send the rest of my earnings back to my family. I am only fourteen years of age. I know nothing about these people. I only know that they will meet me at the railway station and that she will be carrying a pink parasol and he will be holding a bunch of chrysanthemums, which he will give to me. I will accept them and tell them my name, which is Celine. I will follow them to their apartment and be given a room. There I will stay for an undecided period of time – at least a year and depending upon what my parents and my landlord think, possibly a lot longer.

They are there to greet me. They recognise me first, because I have the red suitcase my aunt had told them about. They look pleasant enough. The woman bows and the man gives me the flowers. I notice a certain look in his eye which makes me uncomfortable. I spend a month there in that apartment during which time the man never speaks to me. The woman is kind but very shy and retiring. Her husband is very much the controller in the household. She is told by him what I can and cannot do, and this she conveys to me shyly, apologetically. He starts to impose various rules upon me. I must change from my work clothes into a housecoat as soon as I return from the factory. I must wear ‘these shoes’. I must twine my hair in this manner. There is a photograph on a shelf in the main living room. Gradually I realise that he is turning me into the woman in the picture. He does not seem to look at me but I notice that he watches me furtively when his wife is not in the room and when he thinks I am not noticing him.

I ask the wife about the woman in the picture. For the first time her normally docile eyes grow dark. Her face tightens.

‘That was master’s first wife. She died in childbirth. The baby was stillborn. Then more bitterly she says ‘I cannot have children.’

I felt my heart lurch and my stomach tighten. It seemed as if he was trying to turn me into his first wife. The last thing I wanted to do was to become anyone’s wife, let alone his.  He already had a wife, surely that would stop him from wanting me.  But it did not.  I was unable to write to my parents about my problem because they could not read and I could hardly write. Suddenly the problem became much more pressing. The man brought me another bunch of chrysanthemums and in front of his wife he gave them to me.

‘Take these,’ he said.  It was the first time he had directly addressed me, ‘We would like you to become part of the family.’

He stroked my head and his wife looked away.  I began to feel very nervous. The way he looked at me was the look of a hungry dog. He did not hide his emotions any more. His wife kept out of the way when he and I were in the room. I wished I had a lock on my bedroom door, but I did not.  He used to stroke my hair and smell his hands.  I tried not to let him but I could not prevent it. One day after coming up behind me and burying his head in my hair he pushed me into my bedroom. I was so shocked. I shouted but his wife had gone out. There was no-one to hear my pleas.  He had his way with me. What could I do?

Afterwards he was contrite. He did not speak to me again. His wife became very attentive towards me. She apologised for her husband’s behaviour. She said she would look after me. She did not need to,  he stayed away;  but I was pregnant. I did not realise what had happened to me for several months, but I began to feel very heavy and tired. The woman said that I must leave work and again that she would look after me.  That she did, always sending money to my parents every month. They had no idea what was happening to me, no-one knew, except for one of the under managers at work, she had her suspicions, but as she knew my landlord, I could not tell her what had happened.

I had the baby and the landlord and landlady helped me at the time of its birth. I wanted to hold it to me but they refused to let me see it.  They turned me out of their house, keeping my baby for themselves.

I was distraught.  What could I do? I thought of the under manager and found my way to the factory. People were arriving for the morning shift. They gave me strange looks but nobody made any remarks. The under manager was very understanding.  She said she was not surprised.  Old Lee had always wanted a son and now he had one. She told me about a home for ‘fallen women’ that I could go to, to recover my strength.  I did that and managed to find other lodgings with one of the girls at the factory. When I told the girls what had happened they all said that it was a terrible shame that this had been my fate. They also said that the best thing I could do was to let go of the memory.  Pretend it had never happened. Tell myself I did not have a son – or the memory would eat away at me for the rest of my life.  They told me that I was beautiful and had my own life to lead, and that I should take comfort from the fact that my child would be brought up in a home that would be well provided with all his needs. He would never know his true mother but at least he was wanted, whereas there is no way I could have provided for a child in my situation.

It took me several years to truly forgive my landlord and his wife for their cruel deception, but one day I heard from the under-manager that they had become benefactors to the children of parents who sustained injuries at the factory. They were very generous with their money and so in some small way had made recompense for their terrible crime. I forgave them and it was as if a great weight had been lifted from me. I could smile freely again and I found a loving husband, and had a child of my own, a little girl whom I loved dearly. I never told her about her brother.  It was not a burden to be shared.  The forgiveness had lightened it considerably and I did not wish anyone else to feel the weight of it again.

I had moved on.