Miss Tsou left in the direction of the conductor’s office and I can’t blame her for her eagerness to escape the atmosphere of deadly venom that now enveloped our compartment, centring on and mainly originating from her grandmother. I wished that I could have gone with her.
Madam Tsou had progressed beyond, “Well, I never”, and glaring at people, to wide ranging diatribes on the subject of other people’s lack of good character, as demonstrate by our collective refusal to sit quietly and obey her when she told us what to do. Apparently, despite the seat numbers on our tickets, Master Que and I should have given her her choice of the window seats when she entered the compartment. The two men between whom she’d wedged herself, before they’d had a chance to move aside was my recollection, had failed to stand for her when she sat down or to give her sufficient room. Frankly, how those two could have given her the amount of space she seemed to think she was entitled to, aside from one standing in the corridor and the other sitting in Master Que’s lap, I have no idea. The woman sitting opposite, next to Miss Tsou and the corridor, was a rude, brazen hussy who was trying to do something Madam Tsou didn’t specify with every man present and, finally, the thin man sitting between Miss Tsou and myself was assessed as being perversely and vaguely decadent in some way, apparently based on his choice to travel in a peacock blue shirt under his blacks.
However, she saved the full force of her disregard for Master Que. She had been expanding on his character flaws for a good three solid minutes by the time Miss Tsou came back with the conductor and Master Que had just made matters worse by yawning politely into his hand. The thin man next to me had crossed his legs and appeared to be listening to the diatribe with quiet interest. The woman next to the corridor seemed to be paying attention to the passing traffic in the corridor and the two men flanking Madam Tsou were trying to get further away from those elbows.
At least the conductor’s arrival made Madam Tsou stop what she’d been saying so she could say, “Finally! I want these persons removed from my compartment!”
The guard looked confused. “Your compartment, madam? You are not one of the several persons in this compartment who booked and paid for a private compartment.”
“And next you’ll be telling me, too, that I was booked to travel yesterday and not today,” Madam Tsou was scathing. “You overbook and blame me! My son sent me our tickets and he knows that I always travel in a private compartment and arrive the night before New Year. That’s why he booked tickets for the twenty-seventh!”
I think the gold tael fell into all our hands, except Madam Tsou’s, at that point.
“Grandmother,” I don’t think I could have been as brave as Miss Tsou at that point, “did you tell Elder Uncle to get you a ticket on your usual train or did you specifically tell him you wanted to travel on the twenty-seventh?”
“What does it matter?” Madam Tsou tossed that over her shoulder then muttered, loudly enough for us all to hear her, “Foolish girl!”
I ventured, “Not only is New Year later than usual this year, this is a long month. Tomorrow is the twenty-ninth.”
“Quite right.” The thin man beside me pulled out a small black notebook and consulted its pages. “Last year the final month of the year only had twenty-eight days.”
The man next to the corridor with the repeatedly insulted ribs asked what we were all thinking, “Didn’t you read the tickets or show them to your granddaughter?”
“Or check a calendar?” I didn’t see who said that and I didn’t recognise the voice, so I assumed it was the man sitting next to Master Que.
I could see the emotions flitting across Madam Tsou’s face as she realised just how much face she’d lost herself by her behaviour.
At that point the conductor said quietly, “I have a seat opening up in Compartment Four at the next stop in half an hour. Perhaps you’d like to take tea in the dining car until then, madam? Your granddaughter can remain in this compartment to mind your luggage.” He added, dispassionately, “If you sit on the northern side of the train, the scenery travelling into Dihow is highly regarded.”
Madam Tsou allowed herself to be solicitously ushered out of our compartment and towards the dining car. The conductor went with her, probably to see to it personally that she got a table on the northern side of the dining car. I’m sure that I wasn’t alone in praying that our ticket problems from the capital weren’t going to be repeated in Dihow.
We passed the time in introducing ourselves, now that we no longer had someone present who loudly declared that she had no need to make the acquaintance of chance met strangers. Miss Tsou led off, once she had been persuaded not to apologise for the inconvenience of her being the seventh in our compartment of six. “My name is Tsou Ling, I am the daughter of Tsou Hsai and Tsou Fang, formerly Chou Fang. You’ve all met my paternal grandmother, Tsou Jung….” She looked around, smiling tentatively, “I’m a typist in the office of a business in the capital that’s affiliated with my family’s company. Grandmother and I are travelling home to Chunin for New Year, so we have to get off at Central Songmung Station.” She blushed.
Master Que went next and spoke for both of us. “I’m Master Que Tzu. My student, Sung Nai,” he indicated me, “and I were in the capital for the national gi tournament. Now we are going to Xiamtian so Miss Sung can study at the university.”
“Oh yes,” the man next to Master Que perked up. “How did you do?”
“Very well, thank you,” I answered him with a smile.
“I don’t remember you from the broadcast,” he returned carefully.
“Well, I don’t suppose you would,” I answered just as carefully.
He was instantly apologetic, “I’m sorry if I probed when I shouldn’t have, Miss Sung. I’m Gao Wei,” he bowed in a sitting position to the rest of the carriage, “an audit manager with the Zhanglou Commercial Bank. Like Miss Tsou, I’m returning home for the holiday but I’ll be getting off the train at Sowchong in the morning.”
The man between Miss Tsou and myself spoke up, “I, however, will also be leaving the train at Central Songmung Station.” He too bowed to the carriage, “I am Liang Zhou, an entrepreneur of mixed results.” He turned to Miss Tsou and said, “Although I haven’t had the honour of meeting Tsou Hsai, I have dealt with Tsou Chang and Tsou Fung, who I believe must be your uncles.”
Miss Tsou looked startled and I thought she was almost trying to disappear when she said, “Yes, they are, sir, but, beg my pardon, aren’t you the Marquis of Songmung?”
“Well, yes,” he confessed. “I find it better if I don’t introduce myself as that to begin with, usually. Do you realise,” he turned to the rest of us, “that all we need now for a period comedy of manners, or simply a period comedy, are a member of the clergy and a high government official? We already have a nobleman, two sorcerers, and two ingénues. We do seem to lack a hero, unless Mr Gao volunteers?”
“Oh, no, that would be the conductor,” returned Mr Gao. “But perhaps we should let our two companions introduce themselves before we spiral away in a stream of levity?” He looked at the lady sitting next to Miss Tsou.
She responded with a smile. “I’m Lim Tang and I do work in a government department, but I’m a technical expert and not a bureaucrat. I’m in Immigration, Customs and Quarantine and my field is food testing.” She paused and added, “I spend a surprising amount of my time explaining the germ theory of disease to people, or how and why food spoils – you’d be amazed what travellers will pack into their luggage.”
The man opposite her laughed and bowed before saying, “I’m afraid I have to break the pattern here. I’m a partner in the law firm Mao, Deng and Partners. My name is Bai Chou, and I am also travelling home for the holiday, and, apparently, to be introduced to a lady my family’s matchmaker has found. I’ll be leaving the train at Mengfu Junction.”
The Marquis looked at him and said severely, “Mr Bai, I must protest. As the nobleman I should be the only character who might be either the villain or the romantic hero. What is the world coming to when the lawyer might be the romantic lead of the plot?”
A very silly half hour or more ensued, then we stopped at Dihow. Passengers got off and on. We all sat very quietly and soberly as the conductor guided Madam Tsou past our compartment to Compartment Four. Following which we did discuss the ins and outs of an eight hundred year old murder. I was the only one who’d read any of Lady Wen Cho’s book, but Master Que and Miss Tsou had seen the movie, Miss Lim and Mr Gao had both covered the period in degree-level history subjects and the Marquis was descended from a number of people involved in the affair, including the murder victim and his wife. I hadn’t read to the end of the book yet, but it was still a very interesting discussion and I thought that the Marquis made some very interesting points about the Princess, her inheritance and her estate which hadn’t yet been raised in the book.
Futsu was the only stop between Dihow and Central Songmung Station, but all of our compartment elected to eat in the dining car before the train was due to arrive there. Most of us were concerned that there might me a repeat of the ticket problems we’d experienced in the capital before our departure but Miss Lim was leaving the train at Futsu’s mid-evening coaling/watering stop and had no illusions about her chances of getting a meal once she’d left the train. “All my family eats early,” she said, “and everything will be tidied and put away by the time we get back to the house. They could heat something up for me, but I feel it’s an imposition to ask – I get to sleep in to sunrise in the morning but they all have to be up earlier than that.”
Miss Tsou had wanted to stay in the compartment and eat the rice balls her grandmother had insisted that she pack to ‘save money’ but that wore thin when said rice balls, when extracted from their packaging, proved to be a commercially manufactured product that was just out of use-by date. I couldn’t see them, but we could all smell that the provided accompanying sauce had passed beyond ‘spicy’ to something…else. “You can’t eat that,” said Miss Lim firmly. “Not and stay out of hospital. Not only is the sauce bad, but the rice has dried out, and who knows what’s going in the filling? That needs to go in the bin and you need to come eat with us. And that is my professional opinion.”
“But my grandmother….”
“Will be glad not to be spending her New Year in a hospital holding a basin for you, if she has any sense,” returned Miss Lim. “We can only hope that she won’t eat anything that smells like that herself, no matter how much she wants to clean out her fridge and save money.”
The first class dining car seating was by tables of four, so the seven of us were spread across two of them and I wound up sitting back to back with Master Que, opposite Mr Gao, and diagonally across the table from the Marquis. The table behind me was talking about the mooted plan to upgrade the Pilgrim’s Road from Futsu through the hills to Guangfal, but Mr Gao steered our conversation to the gi championships.
Frankly, his knowledge was encyclopaedic and he should have been talking to Master Que, not to me, because he knew the details of fights I hadn’t been interested in because they hadn’t affected me. I was replying to something he said, and I made a hand gesture as I commented, then the Marquis, Mr Liang, gave me a sharp look but asked in a gentle, polite tone, “And which gi school are you a student of, Miss Sung.”
“Hoshun.” I looked at him with what I hoped was a politely questioning manner because his question had no direct apparent relationship with our conversation.
The Marquis smiled and I could see why people would entrust him with money for risky business ventures. He asked another question, “Miss Sung, when you say you did very well in the national gi championship, did you mean that you won your division?”
I blushed. Mr Gao looked startled, and then delighted. Behind me, Master Que chuckled.
“I take it that’s a ‘yes.’ What do you think, Mr Gao?” The Marquis resumed eating.
“I think you’re right, sir. Do we tease her about it or change the subject?” Mr Gao chased a recalcitrant piece of chicken around his plate.
“Oh, change the subject but tell everyone that we’ve met her and that she was shy.” The Marquis gestured with his chopsticks and went on, “For some reason that always sounds better than saying that someone is a private person.”
From there we veered off on a tangent about the generalities and generalizations of personality and then to the astrology of the coming lunar year.
The three of us were still talking about that when we returned to the compartment. After Mr Gao and Mr Bai, who were the tallest of us, helped Miss Lim get her luggage down from the overhead rack, the discussion of astrology and auspicious days drifted again to feng shui and I got out my list of properties in and my maps of Xiamtian. Then we pulled into Futsu and made our farewells to Miss Lim as she went out to join the bosom of her family. There was coming and going up and down the corridor outside our compartment, but no-one arrived with a ticket to take Miss Lim’s place and I felt no qualms about using half of the newly opened up space between the Marquis and myself for refolded maps.
None of our travelling companions had been to Xiamtian to look for property, but Miss Tsou had some very helpful things to say about plumbing in general and rental bathrooms in particular. Careful measuring with a piece of string suggested that two of the dozen properties, despite being within the requested radius of the university, were in fact too far from the campus by road to be a reasonably walkable distance. I also realised very quickly that far too many of the properties were described with the phrase, “May require some work,” for me to eliminate any of them from consideration. I was obviously not going to be able to make any firm decisions until I’d inspected these places in person.
At that point I put my papers and books away and settled down to nap. The next thing I knew, the conductor was in our compartment making sure that Miss Tsou and the Marquis were awake to leave the train when it stopped. Madam Tsou was in a few minutes later to claim her granddaughter and their luggage, but Mr Gao, Mr Bai and the Marquis already had all three suitcases down before she arrived. I suspected Master Que of only pretending to still be asleep but it avoided he and Madam Tsou having to talk to each other again and that was probably a good thing.
I assumed we’d seen the last of the Tsous and the Marquis when they went down the corridor but the platform at was on my side of the train so I, and possibly Master Que, had a ringside seat when Madam Tsou started telling her son, right outside our compartment window, that he’d bought tickets for the wrong day. He was obviously tired and he replied, “I bought tickets for the date you specified, Mother, and I assumed you knew exactly what you wanted. I was here to collect you last night, but the train was six hours late and then you weren’t on it. When I called you and Tsou Ling in the capital, neither of you were home – obviously you’d left to get this train. Then it took a couple of hours for confirmation to come through that you were on this train, and here I am to collect you and Younger Brother’s daughter. At the risk of being unfilial, Mother, this mess is all your fault and I don’t want to hear any more about tickets, where you sat, and who you had to sit with.”
“Nothing, Mother, nothing at all, or you can wait here for the next train back to the capital.”
At that point the Marquis sauntered over to the Tsou family group and bowed politely.
Miss Tsou bowed politely back, Madam Tsou barely inclined her head and Mr Tsou gave a visible start before bowing very low and almost stammering, “Your Excellency!”
“Mr Tsou,” the Marquis acknowledged, “it’s always a pleasure to meet you or your brother, just as it was a delight to travel with your niece.” He turned to Miss Tsou and held out a white business card to her. “If, as I suspect, your current living arrangements become excessively onerous,” he glanced at her grandmother and I’m sure that he was aware of me on the other side of the window, “Mr Teo of my office in the capital will be delighted to render all the assistance we can provide in helping you find something more suitable at short notice.”
Miss Tsou took the card and said something, very faintly, that was probably, “Thank you.” Her grandmother started saying something but I got the impression that Mr Tsou trod firmly on her foot and she stopped. The Marquis and Miss Tsou bowed to each other and then the Marquis sauntered off, leaving the other two Tsous to bow hastily at his retreating back. Mr Tsou then hustled his female relatives off the platform, no doubt eager to finally get some sleep, poor man.
No-one else joined us and it looked as if we were working our way towards the private compartment that Master Que had booked in the first place. As I went back to sleep I wondered why Mr Teo? My dreams involved coal loading and an increasingly desperate Marquis trying to get a remarkably beautiful Miss Tsou, (well my dream said she was remarkably beautiful), to meet his friend, Mr Teo.
Naturally, I woke up just as I was about to see Mr Teo for the first time.
This is now followed by Why Chomifong?