In his black suit and white shirt, a tight haircut and a firm, purposeful jaw, he had an official look about him as he strode ahead of me across the compound. I slowed down as he came up to my building so that I was still about 20 metres away when he stopped outside, looked up towards my flat and started taking pictures.
He was unconcerned as I approached, and when I said hello he smiled back and looked upwards. Following his gaze, I saw that he wasn’t taking pictures of my flat at all but of the magnolia tree outside which had suddenly burst into flower over the weekend.
It was the first tree on the compound to bloom this year and word had spread to the other end of it where he worked. That was three weeks ago and the pink flowers have all blown away since then, leaving the branches bare as winter while the joy that first met the change of the season in Beijing has given way to grumbling.
A sandstorm that came down through northern China from Mongolia this week drove Beijing’s air pollution to its worst level this year and left the city blanketed in dust. We were warned to keep windows shut, avoid cycling and wear “masks, hats, glasses and sand towels” when going out.
My friend was wearing a baseball cap drawn down over her eyes when we met for lunch but we both left the masks, glasses and sand towels at home. She wasted no time on small talk about the weather but said we should hurry up and order because she had something she wanted to tell me.
“I got punched in the face,” she said.
A friend had called her to say that his grandmother had died and he was feeling low and in need of company so they agreed to go to the cinema in a shopping mall near where he lived. I asked her if it was a date and she looked shocked, saying it absolutely was not, that the film was a comedy and they had each bought their own ticket.
“His grandmother died. He was very sad,” she said.
I could have told her that over the years I’ve seen enough dead grandmothers deployed in the service of seduction to fill a small graveyard, but I said nothing and she kept talking. They were 40 minutes into the film when the door opened and her friend’s wife walked in, making a beeline for the two of them and demanding to know what exactly was going on.
The man got up and told his wife they should discuss it outside but she started berating my friend, jabbing her in the arm and leg with her phone. They all went out into the corridor where another woman was waiting, a friend of the wife’s who took exception to my friend’s refusal to respond to any of the accusations being made.
“You are icy,” she told my friend, taking a swing and punching her on the left jaw.
The wife then joined in, punching my friend around the head while the husband stood back watching what was happening and doing nothing. My friend called the police, who took statements from everyone involved and from the cinema manager, who agreed to let them watch CCTV footage of the incident.
At this stage, my friend told me that she and the husband had been involved with one another for a few months last year but it was now over. While they were at the cinema, the wife had been texting her husband asking where he was and he sent her proof that he had bought a single ticket, revealing in the process where they were.
He told my friend later that the wife had rumbled their affair when she held his phone in front of his face while he was sleeping to open it with Face ID. And he begged my friend not to pursue charges because his wife could face up to 15 days in jail and it could damage their child’s chances in future of getting a job in the public service.
My friend is determined to press on, not least because the wife contacted her a few days after the incident threatening to cause trouble at her work and to go to her home if she didn’t stay away from the husband. If the wife and her friend show remorse, they could avoid jail by agreeing to pay compensation to my friend, whose case is stronger because she did not hit back.
“Someone told me those two women should have gone into the Ladies and punched each other so they could say I hit them,” my friend said.
She wants to get an apology from the wife and the woman who threw the first punch, see them pay a price for their actions and move on. The husband has another idea.
He called my friend the other day and asked if they could get back together.
“He said that since his grandmother died, he doesn’t know what to do and that he has no sense of direction,” she said.