We started as pen pals, in those pre-digital days. She was learning English and I wanted to know more about her culture. Happy with the anticipation of waiting weeks for the next letter, our symbiotic relationship continued by post for many years before we gave in to technological immediacy. My invitation to visit her last year, speedily accepted, was an unexpected pleasure.
We met on the arched bridge of East Lake Park next to her apartment, testing out our familiarity in a hug of greeting. The passage of years since our early exchange of photographs showed in our faces, but didn’t matter, as we chatted about old times as if shared in person. In that cold February, the snow hung heavy on the spindly branches, but both tourists and locals had flocked in for the Plum Blossom Festival. I was entranced by the hundreds of varieties, from the palest pink to a deep red that stood out boldly against the white of the snow and the magical mist that enveloped us.
We did the rest of the tourist trail of course, climbing up Yellow Crane Tower, visiting the museums and Guiyan Temple, plus malls by day and the markets of Jianghan Street by night. My most lasting memory, though, was looking out each day from Wang Li’s apartment, taking in the sweeping views of the lake when clear, or the atmospheric suffocation of the nearby blossom trees that peeped out of any lingering mist.
This year the emails tell a different story. It is many days since Wang Li went out. In her city the ghostly emptiness of the roads and malls, peopled only by masked men with spray gun washers, belies the frantic activity going on behind the doors of pop-up hospital wards. Figures dehumanised by their alien spacesuits give exhausted makeshift care at row upon row of beds.
It is plum blossom time again now, and behind the closed gates of Wuhan Park, the dark flowers begin to die off, leaving a red smear on the morning frost.
Next year the blossom will come again.