The post office contained no surprises for me although it was, of course, quite busy with people collecting parcels and mailing off last minute greeting cards for the New Year holiday. There were a wad of business envelopes for Master Que and two envelopes addressed to me waiting to be collected. The business envelope for me was from the organisers of the national tournament and it affirmed that I was the winner of the professional open division of that tournament and entitled to wear my championship belt in perpetuity. It was nice to have written confirmation of my win with my personal name on it, partly because I could see that having such evidence might be useful someday, and it was interesting to see who was involved in the organising and oversight committee. There, listed in neat, business-like characters in the printed right hand margin were ten names that, in the main, meant nothing to me. Six were Masters, one was a Member of the Legislative Council which is our senior elected representative body, one was a colonel, one was a priest and the last member appeared to be a private gentleman. It struck me as an interesting mix.
The other envelope addressed to me was of the smaller size commonly used for personal correspondence. It was red and the back flap was embossed with gingko leaves and chrysanthemum blossoms. There was no return address but beautiful calligraphy in the blackest ink directed the envelope and its contents to me care of the post office. When I opened it the embossed card inside, more gingko and chrysanthemums, bore an IOU in the same calligraphy from the Solar Emperor for the favour he owed me. It was signed with his seal as Solar Emperor. I shoved the card back into the envelope and put it in my pocket with my other letter so that I wouldn’t lose either.
I retained the presence of mind to stop at the real estate agent’s office on my way back to the hotel. He had a list of a dozen possible properties for me to consider and he’d thought to provide a map of Xiamtian with the general location of each property marked. I thanked him and his staff profusely for their help and wished them all a fortunate and prosperous New Year. I stopped off at a bookstore after I left there and got myself a Xiamtian street directory which naturally had a lot more detail than the map the agent had provided. I had three days of train travel in front of me and I intended to use some of those hours profitably.
I arrived back at the hotel to find Master Que still sitting with Tong Kwai but now the legal representative was helping him sort through a stack of cards and notes. “Ah,” he smiled as I handed him his wad of letters, “my annual investment correspondence. I’ll deal with it later. Some of these are time sensitive in that they’re from people we do not wish to offend. Sit down and help us; most of it’s about you anyway.”
“About me?” I was confused.
“Yes.” He passed me a stack of business cards. “Although your name isn’t public as the winner, enough people know my personal and professional names to have tracked me down and sent me invitations and offers for you via the hotel’s front desk. Those are the business cards of a dozen reputable agents who’d be delighted to handle your endorsements, sponsorships and images for you, for their usual fee of course. There are another thirteen or so that I’ve taken the liberty of binning because they’re known conmen and scammers. There are a few more I’ve put aside because they’re new and I suspect that they could just be starting out so they might be worth looking into.”
Tong Kwai put down another stack of cards in the middle of the table. “These are invitations to New Year’s functions, some of them from quite prominent establishments and people, some of them from, well, establishments of dubious legal standing.”
“Unless one of them is on this afternoon’s train from here to Xiamtian, I won’t be attending any of those,” I said briskly. “Should I call all of these people to turn down their invitations?”
“It would be the polite thing,” agreed Tong Kwai, “although I’m not sure how you should handle the one from The Pleasure Pit.” He blushed, “I don’t think they’re quite inviting you to an orgy, but it reads as morally dubious to me.”
“Then there are the endorsement and sponsorship offers,” went on Master Que in a business-like tone. “Those don’t need to be decided today.”
“Then we can look at them one the train, when we get tired of house details,” I said. “May I ask what that other pile under your hand is, Master Que?”
“Invitations and offer for me,” he answered wearily. “I ask you, do I look like I need Dr Xiao’s Regenerative Ginseng Tea?”
“That’s probably why they approached you,” said Tong Kwai, “but I’d advise against having anything to do with the Dr Xiao brand. There are questions about whether they’re just copying others’ recipes and about the amounts of active and named ingredients actually in their mixtures.”
“So noted,” Master Que nodded. “Would you care to mind this table, Tong Kwai? Nai and I have some phone calls to make before we check out.
And so I spent three quarters of an hour politely declining invitations to parties I wasn’t able to attend. Most people took it in good part when I explained that I was already booked to be on a train before I’d received their very flattering invitation. One woman told me that I couldn’t cancel ‘because we’ve told everyone that you’re coming!’ I’m not sure if it was shock or upset that made her go quiet when I pointed out that I wasn’t cancelling because I hadn’t agreed to go in the first place. I marked that invitation card as coming from a group to avoid in the future. The invitation that Tong Kwai had marked as coming from the Storm Dragons Triad, on the other hand, resulted in me talking to a pleasantly spoken gentleman who not only commiserated on my having to travel over the holiday but confessed that they had thought that I’d probably already had plans for the evening, but nothing ventured meant nothing gained. We finished by exchanging New Year’s greeting and wishes, and that was the tone of most of my longer conversations.
The Pleasure Pit’s proprietress called me ‘darling’ in an extravagant tone, and confessed that she had, in fact, invited me to a probable orgy. When I admitted my age, she said, “Well, we probably wouldn’t have been to your taste, darling, and, frankly, although some of our member clients might think that they’d enjoy water and flower play with an athletic, eighteen year old virgin, I don’t think they’ve really thought the whole thing through. In fact, as you’re probably off to the University I’d recommend that you read The House of the Three Concubines, Health and Congress According to Dr Ma, and the new book by Professor Tsui Yu – Healthy Dynamics in Unequal Relationships. All of them will be useful to you before you meet all those boys off away from home for the first time, and the men who think that girls away from home for the first time are easy prey.”
“Ma’am, Madam Siew,” I used the name on the invitation, “how do you know I’m off to a university?”
“You told me that you’re getting on a train this afternoon and that you’ll be on it for three days,” she replied, “and there aren’t that many trains that undertake a trip like that, even from the capital. As you’re leaving today but you’re still here, darling, then you must be going to Xiamtian. Why but the University would someone your age be going to Xiamtian? Aside from fish and the University, there’s nothing there that you can’t get closer to here.” She added, with a distinct twinkle in her voice, “I am flipping through a railway almanac as we speak, darling. I’m good, but I’m not that good.”
“Madam Siew,” I replied, “I have no idea how to respond to that.”
“Then don’t, darling,” she said kindly, “but keep me and my little place in mind if you decide that ropes and chains excite you.”
I put down the phone feeling that my social circle had been expanded despite my not accepting any invitations.
Master Que and I checked out of the hotel and took our bags three blocks towards the railway station, where we had lunch with Tong Kwai in a noodle bar. After we ate, I stopped off at another bookshop where I picked up a history book that covered Lady Wen Cho’s period at court, and all three of the books Madam Siew had recommended. While I was choosing those books, Master Que picked up a bundle of lurid paperbacks on the basis that we needed some reading matter with no redeeming features at all. The northern style cover illustrations supported his claims as to his methods of selection but I noticed that at least three of the titles in his pile claimed to be autobiographies in translation.
We parted company with Tong Kwai after we checked in the luggage we wouldn’t need on the trip. No doubt he both felt that Master Que was unlikely to get into trouble at the railway station and thought he should get back to his office to find out what was going on there. Our farewells reflected that we would be seeing him again in the definitely foreseeable future.
We had plenty of time to use the comfort facilities and board the train in good time before it left. At which point we discovered that although we had booked a first class compartment, what we were getting was seats in a first class compartment that rapidly filled with other people and their luggage. It turned out that most of our travelling companions would be leaving the train at some point during the following day, but I began to suspect that we would be collecting more the day after New Year. As we were beginning to be seriously encumbered by other people’s luggage, Master Que pulled out our tickets to check the wording, and then went to see the conductor. While he was gone I fended off a woman who wanted to put a suitcase on his seat.
By the time Master Que returned with the conductor we had ten people, including us, claiming seats in a six seat compartment. Something was clearly wrong. Certainly the compartment would seat that many people, if we put the armrests up, but none of us had paid for first class seats in order to sit that closely with our fellow travellers. When the conductor arrived I realised what I hadn’t before, immersed as I had been in our problem, namely that the same issue was occurring in every compartment in our carriage.
The conductor summoned reinforcements.
With less than fifteen minutes to go before our train was due to leave the capital, a team of at least twenty conductors and inspectors descended on the train to check every, single ticket. More of them were on the platform, checking the tickets of those who were still arriving. The tickets that Master Que had procured for us from the ticket office here at the station were without problems. Others were not so lucky.
The family of four whose tickets were actually for the following day were sent away with instructions to return for the correct train, while the unfortunate young woman travelling with a grandmother who insisted that their tickets were for today, and not yesterday, had everyone’s sympathy. Several ‘visitors’ from second class were sent firmly back where they belonged and the owners of a highly excitable miniature lion dog were told, in no uncertain terms, that their pet’s place was in the luggage compartment. By five minutes before the train was due to leave the ticket strike team had identified the problem as multiple tickets issued for seats that hadn’t been sold through the main ticket office. At that point a senior inspector flicked to a page on his clipboard and began interrogating people as to where and when they’d paid for their ticket. Based on their answers compared to his clipboard, he decided who had the seat and threw the losing claimants off the train.
The woman who’d tried to take Master Que’s seat for her suitcase complained when she was told to leave, causing the inspector to look up at her from over the clipboard. He said, “Madam, the ticketing agency you dealt with sold that seat multiple times. I have given the seat to the person whose ticket purchase most closely matches the payment the National Eastern Rail Corporation actually received for that seat. Rest assured that we intend to bring the full weight of all relevant law and contract arrangements to bear on those who are at fault in this matter.”
“That doesn’t get me on this train though, does it?” She didn’t sound like she meant it to be a rhetorical question.
“No, madam, it doesn’t,” the inspector agreed. “If it’s important that you be on this train, then there may still be some third or even second class tickets left. If that is unacceptable to you, then you should go to the ticket office and make other arrangements. Extra carriages in all classes have been added to all of tonight’s mail trains.”
She bristled. “Do I look like someone who would travel on a mail train to you?”
“Madam, at the moment you look like someone who doesn’t have a valid ticket for this train.” He gestured and a robustly healthy, young, male railway employee picked up her suitcase and began carrying it to the carriage exit. She hesitated, obviously torn, then dashed after the young man, berating him to be careful with her luggage.
When we finally left, the train was only four minutes late, and we had only two extra people in our compartment. Master Que had obtained written confirmation that we were due a partial refund because we were not getting the private, if non-sleeper, compartment that we had been promised. Our extra companions were the late-travelling granddaughter and grandmother combination, the elder of who was still loudly proclaiming that today was the day that their tickets were for. I was not looking forward to the rest of the evening, Madam and Miss Tsou were to leave the train at the stop two hours past midnight, but Madam Tsou seemed to think that she was in control of our entire compartment until then and I couldn’t help but notice that she kept telling Miss Tsou that she was stupid and couldn’t be trusted with any of their arrangements. When she declared that if Miss Tsou had been in charge they would have turned up at the station on the wrong day, I had to pretend that my book had made me laugh.
I managed to read five more letters in Notes Betwixt the Outer Court before I tired of courtly gossip and politics, and picked up The Guanzhou Affair again. I read half a chapter before I had to reread a sentence. When it still said what I thought it had the first time, I grabbed my copy of Notes and reread one of the letters I’d just read. I tore up the sheet of advertising that the bookstore had included in their carry bag with my books and used the pieces as bookmarks. I consulted Notes’ index and I delved into my new history book. I even marked passages in the history book with a pencil - in my defence it was a university level text book and the marking of important passages should be expected. When I looked up from the books on my lap, I found Master Que looking at me quizzically.
I asked him, “Is something wrong?” I glanced around the compartment to see if I’d missed something while I’d been going through my books, but aside from Madam Tsou glowering at us all, and the man beside her wincing as her elbow jabbed him in the ribs, everything seemed completely normal.
“I’ve never seen you going through your books like that before,” he said. “When you started marking that new one up with a pencil, I did wonder if you were having some sort of fit, you’re normally so careful with your books.”
“You haven’t seen me when I’m studying,” I said guiltily. “Besides, textbooks are meant to be underlined and marked up. As for why, I’ve just realised that The Guanzhou Affair isn’t a work of fiction.”
“It isn’t?” Master Que looked interested.
“No, Lady Wei is a younger version of Lady Wen Cho herself. General Lord Ping Ti seems to be Four Banner Marshal Huang Foo, which makes Lady Ping, Princess He Mei…” I opened the novel to its dedication page, “The Guanzhou Affair is dedicated to the Solar Emperor, the Red and Green Marshals, and Lord High Justice Luo Lim, so copies of the book would have gone to all of them. Master Que, I think she worked out who murdered Huang Foo, even if the history book does say his murder was never solved.”
He leaned back and looked at me with his unsquinting eye half shuttered. “If the book was her way of telling everyone what really happened and protecting herself, then the ending of that movie makes much more sense.”
“What are you two rabbiting on about?” Madam Tsou interrupted with what I can only describe as pettish spite.
“An eight hundred year old murder,” returned Master Que calmly.
“Not a matter of any consequence then,” she snapped. “I’ll thank you not to impose your nitter-natter on the rest of us.”
“It will be a very tedious trip if none of us may make conversation,” answered Master Que, “and I, for one, find your attitude to those of us who actually had tickets for this compartment, on this train, today, rather confronting. If you want to fight the whole way to your stop, I can. If you don’t want to fight, fine, but stop being unpleasant to everyone else, including your granddaughter.”
She bristled again, “I’m not-.”
“You are,” said the man sitting beside her, “and your elbows are sharp, so can you please stop jabbing me with the one on this side?”
Madam Tsou glared at him, “Well you shouldn’t be in my space!”
“I’m not,” he glared back. “This is a six seat compartment. There are eight of us. Two of us had tickets for yesterday’s train but missed it because a certain opinionated, self-centred, old woman refused to let anyone else handle their travel.”
“How dare you!” Madam Tsou was turning red in the face.
“I dare because you’re hurting me,” replied the man beside her. “Stop hurting me and I’ll be much more affable, but the man next to the window is right, you need to stop being so rude.”
“Tsou Ling,” Madam Tsou turned to her granddaughter, “go and fetch the conductor. I will not be spoken to like this!”
“Oh, please do get the conductor,” urged the woman sitting between Miss Tsou and the corridor. “Perhaps he can move your grandmother elsewhere and the rest of us can talk about eight hundred year old murders if we want to.”
This is now followed by "By Rail To Central Songmung Station."