As we pulled out of Chomifong it occurred to me that Lady Wen Cho would have exerted herself, having seen such an interesting scene, to find out who the lady from the dining car and the gentleman who’d escorted her from the train were. It then occurred to me that if Lady Wen Cho had been there with all the social advantages that she was used to, then she would almost certainly have known who they were and that the slightly lurid scenarios darting around the fringes of my mind belonged to the dark, sometimes macabre romances of the Hyo period almost two hundred years later. The only problem with that, of course, was that the estate and funerary temple might not be isolated at all – there could be a large town, albeit one without a railway station, just out of sight beyond the cemetery or beyond the visible parts of the Hsien estate.
That we then went over a rail crossing on a busy suburban street as I thought that, before trundling through the town of Hsienchow, explains my fit of laughter. And why I chose not to explain myself. Particularly when we went through their quite impressive railway station without stopping.
I decided to try finishing The Guanzhou Affair because it seemed to me from the size of the pages left that there couldn’t be more than four chapters to go. So it proved. I had reached the denouement as the train achieved the outskirts of Mengfu, but put the book aside to bid farewell to our travelling companions. Master Que insisted on carrying Miss Wing’s luggage off the train for her, while leaving me to defend his seat if necessary, and I was treated to the sight of him exchanging what seemed to be very pungent words with two elderly persons who had met Miss Wing. I tried to open the carriage window a little further so I could hear what they were saying, but I soon realised that Master Que was using gi to keep the window just where it was – I didn’t know why but could only assume that he had his reasons.
Once I was looking at the scene outside through gi, I realised a few things. Firstly, with any large group of people you get a lot of loose gi floating around. What that gi is like depends on the mood of the group, or herd, or flock because the same thing can apply to large groups of animals. When I was about twelve my family visited the Ancient Forest Reserve in the Heiwan National Park and that place had some very serious gi reserves – I was intimidated for at least a week. Right here and now though, the ambient gi was, well, not all puppies and kittens but there were definite overtones of chive dumplings and red bean paste cakes.
Not where Master Que was. That group of five or six people was a sphere of darkness in the light. It wasn’t the nature of the gi that made it dark, but what it was being used for. There were mutual bonds between the two older people, nothing unusual there and they’d probably been formed on a subconscious level. From those two, however, other bonds that looked like brambles or barbed wire went out to include Miss Wing and the other two people who were standing with Master Que and the elderly persons. One of those other two had a barbed bond through his heart while the other, like Miss Wing, was bound by thorns at the neck, wrists and ankles. Unlike Miss Wing, I wasn’t sure that the other person was physically there. The whole scene made Master Que, a Hoshun, look like a torch on a dark night. As they spoke, I saw another barbed bond sneak out from the elderly couple and wrap itself around one of Miss Wing’s forearms. Master Que casually swatted the elderly person he was talking to on the hand and the new barbed bond disappeared.
The elderly person, both elderly persons, got angry. Then Master Que got angry.
I don’t think he raised his voice but the crowd moved away from them. Miss Wing looked shocked and the person with a bond through their heart tried to intervene. On the gi level new, loose, barbed bonds were snaking everywhere and Master Que was chopping them off as close to the point of origin as he could. Interestingly, Miss Wing and the heart bound person were trying to do things to calm matters but the manifestations of that in their gi were being snapped off by one of their elderly people. I couldn’t avoid thinking that the elderly people, whose genders I still couldn’t pick, knew exactly what they were doing with their barbed bonds.
The whole exchange had been going on long enough that I had begun to worry about when the train would be ready to leave when a barbed node of connections was thrust at Master Que, apparently trying to entangle him in a multitude of brambles. He made a gesture that should have knocked it aside, but if fragmented as if it had been brittle and the barbed bonds crumbled. One of the elderly persons surged at Master Que, trying to claw at his eyes, but my teacher dodged while the no longer heart bonded man restrained his elderly connection. Miss Wing, also freed of the barbs, stood more confidently but fussed over the other elderly person, effectively restraining them too. The fifth member of their party seemed to have disappeared.
There were suddenly station staff involved and then an ambulance, and the person who’d attacked Master Que was driven away. Master Que climbed back onto the train just as the guard’s whistle blew. Fortunately no-one else had joined our compartment so I was able to ask him, “What was that all about?”
“I was a little concerned that Miss Wing’s personal gi seemed to be tied up in knots,” he told me as he sat down and pulled out one of the books of no redeeming value, “and that she’d said that no-one else believed red tree tar has a smell. Her grandparents were smothered in the stuff.” He opened the book.
“And that started a fight?” I waited for the rest of it.
“The elder Wings do not care for being contradicted,” he said mildly. “I believe her grandparents were using it to prove a point, they seem to be that sort of people.”
“The sort you have gi fights with?” I was still waiting.
“Gi fights?” He sounded surprised.
“Definitely,” I nodded and then told him what I’d seen.
“And someone who disappeared once the bonds were broken?” I’d come to the end of my version of events and that was the point that interested Master Que.
“Definitely,” I affirmed.
Master Que closed his eyes briefly and then swore, fluently, using not only words that were new to me but some I’d only heard of in context of them being censored. “That would be why I’m feeling unexpectedly hungry,” he told me. “You’d think I’d notice that I was having a gi battle, wouldn’t you? From what you’ve said, one of the elder Wings might well be an old time black sorcerer. I’ll think through my contacts while we eat because I might need to phone someone or send a telegram from our next stop.” He stood up, book in hand. “On a completely different note, can you tell me why my name is down to help make good luck dumplings in the dining car tonight?”
“I wanted holiday things,” I told him calmly. “In my family we make good luck dumplings to eat as the first food of the new year. As we don’t seem likely to have a proper party or fireworks tonight, I’d like to at least make dumplings.”
“Then there should be dumplings,” agreed Master Que. Then he asked me, “Do you regret any of this? Leaving home, running around the country for months while hiding from your parents, heading off to tertiary school without seeing them again?”
“Winning the national championship and going off to start my tertiary course of choice?” I was trying to keep my levity dry. “I don’t regret those things at all, or earning enough money to support us, although,” I took a sly look at him sideways, “I have reason to believe that you wouldn’t have starved if I hadn’t won my way around the circuit.”
“I’m not without resources,” he agreed with a mischievous grin, “but less winning might have meant a lot of dish washing on your part.”
“A good thing I won then.” I think my return grin matched his and I decided not to mention that I continued to have nagging feelings that I was being unfilial.
“Indeed,” and with that he led the way to the dining car where we made conversation about foxes and otters with an earnest young woman while Master Que demolished a plate of varied dim sum. The young woman, Hsiang Neko, who was wearing a pair of pretend cat’s ears on a headband, seemed impressed by his appetite and capacity.
When Master Que had finished eating, we returned to the compartment where he napped and I finished off The Guanzhou Affair. When I finished reading the denouement I could see why the book ended with Lady Wei waiting in an anteroom, not knowing who would enter – Lady Wen Cho had, effectively, presented her report on the murder of Four Banner Marshal Huang Foo to the Solar Emperor and his ministers and did not know what was going to happen next. For my part, I pulled out my history book to see if it said anything about the Princess remarrying or any of the conspirators being punished. It took me almost until we reached the next stop at Fongbai to find what I did: Lady Zhing Low entered a monastery almost immediately and died thirty years later with a great reputation for piety because, despite becoming Abbess, she had never left the grounds again; Lord Guan Cheng, her brother, was dead within a year of The Guanzhou Affair’s publication, dying of the plague he’d been sent to Nanxin to contain; their cousin, General Guan Lei, had died while pursuing bandits or rebels, depending on your definition, in the then western-most provinces; and the rest of the conspirators weren’t important enough to make it into a history book. Princess He Mei had remarried, to the then incarnation of the Green Marshal, and become the mother of both Four Banner Marshal Huang Cao and Four Banner Marshal Tao Zhun. None of my books mentioned what had happened to Lady Wen Cho and even the short biography in Peony Missives was very light on detail - I was disappointed.
Master Que woke as we pulled into Fongbai, dashed off the train, and went straight into the stationmaster’s office. He emerged a little later looking, I thought from my vantage point at our compartment window, very satisfied with himself. He also declined to share the reason for his satisfaction when he returned to the compartment and attempted to distract me by alluding to the delights of the evening before us. I handed him his red money packet from me and that stopped his attempts to make me laugh midflow.
“Whatever is in here,” he held the packet up between thumb and forefinger, and shook it, “you shouldn’t have.”
“If you don’t want it, you can give the contents to charity,” I replied prosaically. “At least I will have shown my appreciation for your kindness, time and attention.” I stood, bowed low, and then resumed my seat.
“Your view of my character is much kinder than my view of it,” answered Master Que and he bowed in return. “I’m afraid I haven’t gotten you a red packet at all.” He didn’t sound at all sorry and he held out a small wrapped cube, the folded paper red with gold good luck symbols stamped on it. “In the old days, before we were conquered, it was the custom of certain sorcerers to give their apprentices who were close to becoming journeymen a sort of countdown present to mark how little time was left in the master-student relationship. It’s not something either of my teachers did, but it seems appropriate for me to give one to you.” He smiled softly. “Please take it and open it.”
I did. I couldn’t resist. It was a very unexpected gift, and it was beautifully wrapped. If Master Que had done it himself then it displayed a talent I hadn’t known that he had. Inside the paper I was carefully unfolding was a black box and in that, sitting in a velvet suede lined cavity, was a jade figurine of an ox, the animal of my birth year. It was accompanied by a pendant set into its own niche in the velvet suede, an ox character in a circle delicately carved from dark carnelian.
“They’re beautiful!” And they really were. The jade had just enough colour to show the carved details of the figurine and it looked paler still beside the dark carnelian, almost like congealed moonlight.
“I’m sure our predecessors had many wise words at this point,” said Master Que drily, “but the best I can come up with is to repeat Father Go Tse’s very good advice from your birthday - even if the end of your journey is predestined, and I suggest few are, how you get there is up to you. No matter what Heaven throws at you, it can only suggest or request, it cannot impel. You may have come into this life a Fire Ox but that does not and has never defined you. Never let anyone make you believe that it should.”
“And don’t let myself be rushed into anything by my birth prediction?” I gave him a wry smile.
“Exactly,” he agreed. “Now, I think we should have dinner and then present ourselves for dumpling duty.”
I agreed but slipped my new pendant on before following him to the dining car. It occurred to me that I was accumulating quite a lot of jewellery.
Dinner was quieter than any meal we’d had so far in the dining car, because after Fongbai the only passengers left on the train were like us, those with no other option to get where they were going and no choice but to travel through New Year. Because of the reduced passenger numbers and the New Year preparations, there was a smaller menu for dinner so Master Que and I got both the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian options to share.
Then we presented ourselves for dumpling duty. While I was tasked to helping make the pastry, Master Que was apparently assessed as probably safe to be allowed to use sharp knives and introduced to a small sheaf of chives, a small mound of garlic and a small pile of cabbages. I was still discussing the differences between the family recipes for dumpling wrappers and the one the dining car was using with the cook who was supervising me, when we heard the head chef say, “Are you telling me you’ve already cut those up properly?”
“Have a look and see what you think,” Master Que offered.
The cook and I turned to look as the head chef let a handful of cabbage fall back down into the basin. The results were apparently acceptable. “Let’s see what you can do with the onions,” and the head chef handed over a large bundle of spring onions.
I’d known that Master Que was good with a kitchen knife, but I hadn’t realised how good. Professionally good, apparently. Finely chopped spring onions piled up at a rate that seemed to impress the head chef and definitely satisfied him as to quality. Late comers who’d expected to be chopping vegetables got straight into mixing the filling together. Those of us tasked with making wrappers stopped talking and started working in earnest. The dough had to rest before it could be used and the filling was ready much earlier than the kitchen crew had expected, so we all got to sit down, drink tea and play a poetry game while we waited. It’s the sort of thing that usually happens at drinking parties, probably because drunk people are less worried about embarrassing themselves, but we managed to complete three rounds of the game and produce three reasonably coherent poems on the New Year, trains and onions. I thought the onion one was the best of the lot, even if everyone did moan about the theme when it was chosen.
Then we rolled out the dough and cut out the dumpling wrappers. Did I mention that we were making enough dumplings for everyone on the train, not just the people in first class? Also, have you realised how many ways there are to pleat them into the right shape? It all depends on how much filling you use per dumpling…. I filled a serving platter with dumplings ready for cooking, and then discovered that some of the other ‘helpers’ were of the standing around, drinking tea and talking while other people do the actual work type. I did what the kitchen staff were doing and just moved on to the next work station and made up those dumplings too. We did get everything done in time for midnight, but some people deserved fewer congratulations for a job well done than they gave themselves.
We weren’t in a town when we passed the midnight mark but we’d been warned to get a view from the southern windows of the train and so were able to see some of the display in Wuguan, just over the horizon. When we’d left their chrysanthemum bursts behind us, we set to cooking and serving dumplings.
Possibly as the result of past experience, the cooks made sure that they were the ones who dealt with all that boiling water. I also noticed that the standing around and talking types either disappeared as soon as they got their plate of dumplings or were only interested in taking serving platters around to the train crew and the first class compartments.
Not wanting to be like them, I volunteered to take dumplings to the third class compartments at the far end of the train before I ate. Third class was four-across bench seats facing each other with luggage racks above the seats but no partitioning walls. The seats and their backs were plain wooden slats, and I was very glad that this wasn’t how I was travelling for three days. Despite the smoking ban on the train, two of the three carriages reeked of tobacco smoke. The carriages were also almost empty and I’d been surprised that I’d been sent off with a platter of dumplings that I thought would have fed almost twenty people.
That was before I met the three soldiers at the rear of the third carriage who were happily smoking and drinking in defiance of all the rules, and were surrounded by the remains of their dinner boxes. I managed to limit them to about a quarter of the platter and politely declined their offer of my choice of beer and rice liquor. The elderly man in the same carriage, also smoking but drinking his alcohol straight out of a ceramic bottle, had no evidence of a dinner box about him and I pressed what I thought was a double portion of dumplings on him for fear that he’d had no dinner and had no expectation of breakfast. The final two occupants of the carriage, two young men apparently travelling together, seemed pleasantly surprised that there were dumplings being offered to them, and we exchanged the usual New Year greetings before I left them to their food and cigarettes.
The second compartment was tobacco smoke free, although rather incense laden. There were two occupants: an elderly woman who’d set herself up in, well, it was an oracle shrine; and man in somewhat threadbare scholar’s robes who was drinking by himself in the front set of seats. The woman, swathed in her incense smoke, offered me a fortune told in return for the dumplings but nodded graciously when I told her that they were offered with the compliments of the kitchen staff. The scholar accepted his dumplings, set them to one side, and then made a suggestion about something he and I could do together, right then, in language I do not choose to repeat. I hastily told him that I was busy handing out dumplings before they got cold and retreated to the third class carriage I hadn’t served yet.
The last of the compartments I had to serve was, again, heavy with smoke. This time it was centred on one party and the carriage’s only occupants, a group of Shimba tinkers who were drinking hot tea that I hoped they’d gotten out of a thermos and sharing Shimba holiday sweets. They gleefully accepted the rest of the dumplings and pressed holiday sweets for the kitchen staff on me in return. The one sitting on the seat end nearest the front of the carriage pinched me on the backside as I was leaving and when I turned to look at him, he winked. I suspect that he was being deliberately comical because his expression together with his brightly coloured Shimba short coat made me giggle. Somehow dealing with him made me feel much better than dealing with the scholar had.
I delivered the sweets to the kitchen staff with the thanks of the Shimba tinkers and didn’t tell master Que of my encounter with the scholar. At that point the head chef loaded me up with a plate of dumplings, added two of the wrapped sweets, one red bean and the other rosewater, and sent me back to my compartment with a cup of tea.
I ate my dumplings, Master Que declining to share with me on the grounds he’d had enough already, enjoyed my sweets and drank my tea. Then I fell asleep. I dreamed of oracular old women, importunate scholars and Shimba soldiers in tunics made of brightly, horizontally striped, nubbly cloth.
When I woke it was well after breakfast, I’d slept through two train stops and I was lying along the length of the seat. There was one more stop to go and we would be in Xiamtian.
This is now followed by The End of The Train Trip.