Reenie as a Young Woman
Everyone knew Irina Lan Mei. A local beauty on the Fifth Cropship of the Black Rhinoceros, she turned heads wherever she went. She was the object of affection for many a young man, but she had so far turned down every one of them. It was not that she did not want to get married, or that she wasn’t interested. She was simply biding her time. She was young. She would give herself room to be a girl before committing to becoming a woman.
This was a constant source of worry for her family. Society dictated that she simply must get married, and she was now almost twenty-three. If she left it much longer, people would start to gossip. Why hadn’t she married? Did she not like men? Did she *gasp* prefer women?! The Wheels of Rumour span, but Irina was deaf to them. Other people’s opinions had never held much sway, and so she went about her life as she wanted to, with a spring in her step and a smile on her face.
Her main companion had always been her dog, Shasha. The little animal followed her everywhere. If Irina were to go to the marketplace and Shasha wasn’t with her, stallholders would wonder where he was. They all loved him. People could often hear Irina before they saw her, as Shasha would give a loud yip whenever he smelt something interesting.
He pulled her along between the stalls, now, and stopped abruptly at one with a delicious display of sweet treats.
‘Those are not for dogs,’ she insisted, as she tried to drag him away.
‘Ah, come on, Reenie,’ said the stallholder. ‘Let him have a sniff. ‘Ere…’ He turned away for a moment, then came round the front and bent down towards the little dog, who sniffed his hand. ‘This is for you, little man.’ After a moment, Shasha stuck out a pink tongue and licked up the treat from the trader’s palm. ‘There ya go! He likes it!’
‘He’ll break his teeth if you keep encouraging him like this, Mr Huang.’
The stallholder laughed. ‘It’s all right,’ he insisted. ‘These are not hard, they’re chewy. But they’re hard work. That one’ll keep him busy for ages!’ He laughed again, a hand on his substantial belly to stop it wobbling.
‘Looks like you’ve been eating too many of your own sweets, Mr Huang!’ Irina said, and smiled at him.
‘Ah, y’see,’ Huang said with a wink, ‘that’s so’s all the ladies won’t fight over me. I’m savin’ meself for you.’
Mr Huang was at least thirty years older than the girl, and had been married for as long as anyone could remember. His wife ran a stall across the way, selling colourful fabrics that were as easy under the hand as they were on the eye. Irina had a mind that she would buy material for her wedding dress there. When the time came.
‘How is Huang Tai-tai?’ she asked.
‘Oh!’ Huang laughed again. ‘She is well, she is well, xie xie!’
‘She is still making some of her own fabrics?’
‘Certainly! Her handmade materials are always her most popular. Go over, Reen, say hello. She’d love to see you, again.’
‘I will. But first, I may as well buy some more of those chewy things, like the one you just gave Shasha.’ She glanced down at the little dog, who was still worrying at the treat, his tongue contorting awkwardly in his mouth as drool pooled on the ground in front of him. ‘Oh, dear. How embarrassing.’
Mr Huang laughed again as he came back round behind the table, grabbing a paper bag as he did so. Then he took a small shovel and scooped up a generous serving of the treats. ‘I made these ‘specially,’ he said. ‘There’s a few what brings their dogs to the market with ‘em, so it seems a shame, I thought, to make ‘em go without.’ After a moment’s thought, he dipped the shovel into the bucket again and tipped a few more into the paper bag. ‘No extra charge.’
‘Xie xie. How much do I owe you, Mr Huang?’
‘Seven fen,’ the man said. ‘Can’t say fairer than that, eh?’
‘Indeed you can’t, Mr Huang,’ Irina agreed.
‘Come back soon,’ he called, as the girl walked away waving. Shasha, at least, wasn’t dragging her where he wanted to go. For now, Mr Huang’s chewy dog treat was taking up all his attention, so even though Irina was back in charge, he was proving difficult to lead as he wasn’t looking where he was going. As they turned a corner, he bumped into a table leg. But he still would not let go of the chewy treat.
She soon came upon a stall selling vegetables, and there was a queue. She joined it. The young man in front of her seemed agitated. Perhaps he was in a hurry and had no time to waste. Shasha bumped against his ankle in a futile attempt to take control of Mr Huang’s chew. The man glanced round, a scowl on his face, ready to give whoever owned the dog what-for. But as soon as he laid eyes on Shasha, he broke into a wide grin and bent down to tickle him behind the ears.
‘He loves that,’ said Irina. ‘You’ll be a friend for life if you keep that up!’
The man carried on for a few moments more, then said, ‘He has other things on his mind, for now, it seems!’ He stuck out a hand for her to shake. ‘My name is Hong Li.’
‘Irina.’ Hong had a firm grip as they shook. ‘But most people call me Reenie.’
‘Well, it’s nice to meet you, Reenie,’ said Hong. ‘My wife and I have a stall on the other side of the market, selling noodles.’ He indicated the moving queue with his head. ‘Supplies. Need fresh vegetables. You’re welcome to come and sample our wares whenever you wish,’ he added. He gave the girl a hard stare, then his face relaxed. ‘I can see you,’ he said, conspiratorially. ‘There’s more to you than meets the eye, I’ll wager.’
Reenie smiled. ‘Likewise,’ she murmured. ‘Y’know, I might just come over to your stall, later on. I dare say I’ll be getting hungry before too long, and I’d like to try these noodles of yours.’
‘Very good,’ Hong said. ‘Very cheap. I’ll do you a deal. Introductory offer so you tell your friends how good they are. New wife. New business. We need word to spread.’
‘Ah,’ said Reenie. ‘I like a man with shrewd business sense.’
‘Can’t survive without it,’ said Hong.
The queue had moved fast, and now it was his turn to be served. Once he’d filled his bamboo basket to the brim, he turned to her again.
‘I’d say goodbye, but I have a feeling I’ll see you later.’ He smiled at her.
Reenie smiled back, but said nothing. Instead, she turned to the vegetable seller. At last, it was her turn.