We left the Inn of the Tenth Reflection shortly after breakfast the next day, having been in residence for a week, as hotel billing counts things. Master Que had discussed honorariums for the staff with me over breakfast, not so that I would pay them but so that I would understand how such things worked. I’m not sure whether his disbursement had been on the generous side or if the Inn was simply very old fashioned, but the entire staff lined up and bowed us good bye when we left. I asked Master Que about it on our way to the station but he dismissed it with a wave of his hand that indicated that the subject was unimportant.I had thought that we’d left the Inn early for catching a mid-morning train but when we reached the station, I began to understand why. The place was chaotic. There were passengers everywhere and trolley loads of live chickens being pulled along one of the platforms when we arrived. Announcements were being made from both platforms at once and meal basket sellers were doing a brisk trade along one platform as was a stall on each platform that sold tea. The line up at the ticket office was enormous, as was the one at the booking office. I discovered then that no fewer than six trains were leaving Kwailong by midmorning and that we were not the only ones who could not, or would not, get their tickets beforehand, even though many of the people in the queues were families who seemed to be returning home from holidays in time for school. Frankly, I thought they should have known to have their travel organized in advance.
It took us an hour to reach the head of the queue so that we could buy our tickets. While waiting I heard three long digressions on how the cost of tickets here had been less than the cost of the return tickets, a lengthy explanation of her bowel problems by the lady next to me in the queue to her companion, and a tantrum because someone’s cats couldn’t be free roaming on the train. Consequently the ticket seller’s visible relief when Master Que quietly requested two first class tickets and a private compartment on the morning express to Bao Shung wasn’t as much of a surprise as it should have been. He told us there was one private compartment left, booked us into it, took our money and gave Master Que our tickets.
We then repaired to a platform that was now chickenless, although not entirely free of evidence of recent chicken presence, which two station attendants were busily dealing with. We avoided the remaining evidence and positioned ourselves where our carriage was due to line up on the platform. Fortunately the other trains leaving Kwailong in this direction for the morning had already left so there were only the passengers for our train present on the platform. The meal basket sellers reappeared a quarter of an hour before the train was due and Master Que purchased two for our lunch as we weren’t due into Bao Shung until early midafternoon. The train arrived on time and I recognized the carriage set as the one we’d travelled to Kwailong in.
We boarded the train and then our plans began to fall apart. Our private compartment was already occupied and not just by one or two stray passengers whom we might have accommodated in a spirit of general goodwill. It was full, to the extent of their luggage and a couple of teenage boys spilling put into the corridor, with a large family apparently headed by a stout matriarch who glared at Master Que from the seat she occupied as he double checked the seat and compartment numbers on our tickets. Master Que caught her eye, bowed, straightened and then pulled the communication cord to summon the conductor.
That gentleman arrived, naturally concerned that he was about to be confronted by an emergency. I think that once the issue became clear to him he began to wish that he’d been called to something he could have summoned an ambulance to deal with. Madam Rau and her family had second class tickets and had joined the train at the previous stop but had been unable to get seats together in any of the second class carriages. So, after the conductor had passed through the train checking tickets, she’d gathered them up and gone looking for somewhere that they could sit together. The place she found was our private compartment and she was now refusing to move on the grounds that would probably involve waking three sleeping toddlers. Master Que offered to forgo the private compartment if we could have seats elsewhere in first class, but there were none. There were no longer any seats in second class as those carriages were going to be standing room only when we left Kwailong.
I asked, “What about that little vestibule area at the front of the carriage?” The conductor, Master Que and Madam Rau all looked at me. “I mean, it’s carpeted and the engine is directly in front of us, so there’s no through traffic. I can sit on the carpet, but I quite understand that Master Que may not wish to, and there would be space for our luggage.”
Master Que nodded. “The suggestion has potential,” he agreed. “Particularly if the platform is going to be on the same side of the train at every stop from here to Bao Shung.”
“It is,” I could almost see the conductor grabbing at a semi-acceptable solution with both hands before it could get away, “and I have some extra cushions I can give you to sit on. However,” he glared at Madam Rau, “your sons and luggage can’t stay here blocking the corridor for the rest of the trip.”
“Perhaps they could come with us,” I suggested blandly. “If Master Que is so inclined, he might give them a mah jong lesson.” The boys, who would have been about sixteen and fourteen, looked appalled but Master Que’s lips twitched appreciatively.
Madam Rau declared, “I am not having my sons go off with no-one knows who. For all I know you might want to be alone with them for immoral purposes or to ruin their chances in the provincial tournament!” She glared at Master Que, who was looking more disreputable than usual I thought, probably because he was beginning to be annoyed.
Master Que reached into a pocket and pulled out his card wallet, the one he normally carried when he wore his formal robes, and presented Madam Rau with one of his cards. “I assure you, madam, that I have never had immoral intentions towards any minor and that I have only a general professional interest in the amateur provincial gi tournament. My student, Miss Sung,” I bowed, “is competing in the professional competition. Please keep my card so you can identify me to the authorities if you are unhappy with my dealings with your sons.” He bowed to her. “Nai, boys, bring your luggage up to the forward vestibule. I fear this matter has already delayed the train for far too long and we do not wish to find ourselves stuck behind an all stations service somewhere on the trip ahead.” With that, he swept the three of us before him up to the front vestibule of the carriage where we arranged our bags and, when the conductor brought the promised cushions a short while after the train set off, made ourselves comfortable.
The older boy was Rau Wang and his brother was Rau Mung. Both had gained entry to the provincial tournament in their amateur age and gender competitions and neither had been to Bao Shung before. That I had in common with them. That and coming from a large family, because there were nine Rau siblings in total, seven of whom were back in the compartment with their mother. Madam Rau had, reasonably, been unwilling to let them travel so far from home on their own, even if they were going to stay with their aunt and uncle, and as she was recently widowed, if Madam Rau went with them, then so did the rest of the family.
“I was wondering,” commented Master Que delicately, “whether, instead of inconveniencing your mother, you could have made the trip in the care of your gi teacher?”
“He’s coming to the tournament,” Rau Wang assured us, “but if he was going to cancel his lessons with other students for the rest of the week and travel today, then we would have had to pay the difference in his earnings as well as his train fare and accommodation.”
Master Que raised an eyebrow and Rau Mung added, “He wouldn’t be able to stay with our aunt and uncle too, ‘cause he’s not family, but I don’t think he wants to stay near their place in Hmungchai.” The boy flushed and added, “You may not have noticed, but we’re Khem and that’s the Khem quarter in Bao Shung.”
“I suspected it from your family name,” admitted Master Que, “but I don’t think it’s at all relevant. So, which gi school do you practice?”
“We’re Taozhu,” replied Rau Wang.
“And we’re Hoshun,” said Master Que comfortably. “So, is this Chu Tsing in the amateur men’s open division as good as he’s supposed to be?”
We spent the next hour discussing Chu Tsing and other amateur fighters the boys had seen who would be at the tournament in Bao Shung. It took me a while to realize it but not only was Master Que gathering information from the boys about the fighters under discussion, he was giving the three of us a lesson in how to analyse a potential opponent before we’d actually faced them ourselves. He’d been doing that with me, I now realized, ever since we’d left home, but this was the most concentrated session of that work we’d done – possibly because the Rau boys were only with us until the station in Bao Shung.
The gold tael coin fell into Rau Wang’s hand shortly before we reached the next stop. “So,” he said slowly, “if Chu Tsing and Ho Fang have similar moves and strategies, and they train in the same gi school with the same master, then if I face Soong Chi in my division who also goes there I should expect some of the same patterns?”
“Exactly,” beamed Master Que.
“Or,” piped up Rau Mung, “if Ming Tzung is a jerk, then there’s a good chance that his brother, Ming Gi, is a jerk too?”
“Well, perhaps not so much,” conceded Master Que, “but it’s something to be kept in mind, particularly if their master’s other students behave the same way. It may be less likely if they have different masters, in my experience.”
We reached the next stop at that point and the door on the platform side of the train opened to let two new passengers on, one of whom glared at us and pulled the communication cord. When the conductor arrived, the tall, thin woman pointed a finger at us and asked querulously, “What is this? And in first class?”
“Some other first class passengers being very accommodating over a problem with their seats, madam,” answered the conductor. “May I help you take your luggage to your compartment?”
She looked at us again and shuddered.
When she and the conductor were gone Master Que made a gesture with his hand that wrapped sound around us for a moment and, as the boys looked suddenly intrigued, he said, “Thank Heaven your mother didn’t commandeer her seat!”
Rau Mung giggled and Rau Wang asked, “Sir, what did you just do?”
“Gi isn’t just about fighting,” Master Que told him. “It can do a lot of other things as well. You should ask your gi teacher about it, particularly as what I just did was the Hoshun way of bending sound and the Taozhu way of doing it may be significantly different. Sometimes mixing techniques from different schools doesn’t work very well.”
“I’ll try to ask Master Lao about it after the tournament,” agreed Rau Wang.
Master Que’s eyebrow was twitching again so as the train began to move I asked, “Is it time for lunch yet?”
“It can be,” answered Master Que and he extricated our meal baskets from the stack of luggage. “Will you two boys join us? One of these things isn’t enough for two and two always leaves leftovers.”
“Our mother has stuffed rice balls for us,” replied Rau Wang, “but I suppose that if we were doing you a favour, it would be alright.”
“Exactly so,” agreed Master Que and he portioned out the food. As it turned out these were generously portioned meal baskets and between the four of us, probably just enough. When their younger brother, Rau Hu, turned up with their share of the stuffed rice balls, the boys sent half of them back.
Their mother came back with the rice balls a few minutes later and surveyed the remains of our lunch in silence, including her sons munching on rice balls as afters. “Well,” she said, “I can see why you sent good food back, can’t I?”
“Please, Madam Rau,” said Master Que placatingly, “your sons have been saving us from the problems of dealing with leftovers.”
“Oh, they’re good at that,” she agreed, “as long as they’ve been no trouble?”
“None at all,” replied Master Que as the boys shook their heads vigorously.
“I suppose that’s alright then,” and she gave us all a very sharp look before taking the rice balls back to the compartment.
We were packing up from lunch when, to make conversation, I said to Rau Wang, “You’ll be in your first senior secondary year this year, won’t you? What electives do you want to take?”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” he replied. “I won’t get to finish this year, let alone next year. We need me to get a full time job as soon as possible once I turn seventeen. Since our father died last year, we’ve had trouble making ends meet.”
“Our mother’s hoping one of us might attract a sponsor at the gi tournament,” added Rau Mung. “I think that’s only going to happen if we can get into the nationals, but… We’ll need to keep up the part time jobs to get there, or to have another chance next year.”
“Important factors,” agreed Master Que. “In the meantime, as you have to start this year in senior secondary school, might I suggest one of the Water Sciences as an elective?”
“Or even as your science strand,” I put in. “I managed to get in Earth Science I and II.”
“Why?” Rau Wang looked from Master Que to me and back.
“As a Taozhu you may well have an affinity for it,” answered Master Que, “as, it appears, Nai had for Earth Sciences. If you have to leave school early, then having good marks to that point in one or more science subjects may help you get something like a technical traineeship.” Rau Wang looked skeptical, and Master Que added, “And a good reference from your Water Sciences teacher.”
“That wouldn’t hurt,” agreed Rau Wang. “It might even help with getting past the family background thing.”
“I would like to say that you shouldn’t worry about that sort of thing,” answered Master Que, “but that would be ignoring reality, wouldn’t it?”
“I’m sure you have no idea,” answered Rau Wang.
“Not the way you do,” agreed Master Que. “Would you like a game of mah jong?”
“That’s an old man’s game,” Rau Wang answered shortly.
“And a gambler’s and a tile shark’s,” agreed Master Que. “How are you at telling which is which?”
“Is this another ‘useful’ lesson?” Rau Wang was still prickly.
“It could be,” agreed Master Que, “and it could also be fun. Also, I never play children for money.” He smiled. “Only tile sharks.”
“Ooooh!” Rau Mung looked impressed, “Yes, please!”
And so the four of us played mah jong the rest of the way to Bao Shung.
This is now followed by A Week in Bao Shung.