It was at that point that I remembered my two hampers from the night market. I hadn’t actually seen them since we’d boarded the train and found that we’d be sharing our compartment – I remembered them being put into a top corner of the overhead luggage rack, on top of someone else’s bags, because that was where they could be fitted in but I hadn’t seen them after that. So, being inspired by that niggling feeling that food would be a good idea, I stood on the seat to have a better look. Given that there were only the two of us left in the compartment and that our luggage we weren’t going to need on the trip was travelling in the parcel van with the guard, you wouldn’t have thought that was necessary.
They weren’t there. Given that I hadn’t seen them leave with any of our travelling companions, I checked under the seats on both sides because sometimes you could store things under there.
I found twenty seven standard taels in a variety of denominations, a silver jacket button and few fluff rabbits. No hampers.
I was wondering where to look next when my gi teacher returned from wherever he had been when I woke up. I asked, “Master Que, do you know what happened to two hampers I filled at the night markets? I just remembered them and now I can’t find them.”
He immediately looked guilty. “I’m afraid I gave them away last night. There were these children in second class who looked hungry,” he paused before adding almost distantly, “and frightened. Someone had hit their mother. You must have been looking forward to them, I’m sorry.” He gave me an apologetic smile.
“I was, now that I remembered them,” I admitted, “but it sounds like you may have found a better use for them. I’ll just have to take my chances with the dining car and a cup of tea.”
Master Que gave me a wry smile, “Thank you for being gracious about my generosity with your possessions. I did stay with them while they started eating, I wanted to make sure the children actually got at least some of the treats. Sometimes charity and compassion don’t lead to where you expect.”
“You thought?” I didn’t know quite what he had been thinking.
“That their mother might have thought she needed the money from selling the hampers to someone else more than they needed to eat last night. That they might actually have needed the money more than the food. That if she sold the hampers it might not be the children who saw the benefit.” He sighed. “I’m old enough to be cynical but hopeful at the same time. Now, you should freshen up and we’ll see about getting you some tea.”
And so we repaired to the dining carriage in search of tea.
Fortunately for me, tea was freely available. It came with a bowl of ginger-laced congee and another of spicy noodle soup. I didn’t need the hangover cures but I did want something to eat, and if congee with ginger is what I consider an acquired taste, the soup was really good. I definitely felt better afterwards.
Master Que had joined me with a cup of something brown that the steward had given him that hadn’t come from a teapot. When I was finishing the congee he said conversationally, “I’ll be happy when this trip is over, not that I regret coming to Xiamtian with you. I’ve found it…disturbing. There was Chomifong, although I’ve always found discussion of General Man and General Smith upsetting for some reason, and then there was the gi fight I didn’t realise I was having. I will be happy to have some time to settle down again.” He drank some more of whatever he was having and added, “I suppose I thought I gotten past the disturbing dreams when I grew out of my extended adolescence and when I stopped getting concussed.”
I asked carefully, “Disturbing dreams?”
He gave an airy wave with his free hand, “You know, the ones where you think you know everyone but you don’t know their names, and they all call you something else?”
“I don’t.” I added honestly, “Well, not that I remember.” Something clicked. “Are you having them again? Last night?”
I grasped at the falling taels of ideas around me and hoped I’d grabbed a metal one instead of clay, “Did it involve children?” He nodded. “So what did they call you?”
“This one was different. They called me Que Tzu. It was a memory of the night they sold me to my first gi teacher so they could get the medicine for our mother.” He stared over my shoulder for a while. “She still died. I’ll never know if it was because the medicine was no good or if it was just too late for it to do her any good.”
Nothing I could say would be adequate and expressing shock, at this late date, at the way he’d been treated seemed crass. “I’m sorry.”
He gave me a wry smile. “It’s nothing that can be helped now, and Black Teeth Kong could have been a great deal worse than he was. I still count the decade I had with him as a good one.”
“So you stayed with him until you were eighteen?” I drank some more tea. Stories of children being sold to fund the rest of the family’s needs belonged to Hyo period ‘romances’ and the more modern black-mood novels copied from various northern styles, but it had happened to Master Que…
“He died when I was in my early teens and then Master Chan Tsu took me on, but that’s another story,” he rolled his shoulders and stretched a little. “I think I prefer the dreams where pretty women call me by other names. Do you ever have those?” He obviously didn’t want to talk about himself anymore.
“With pretty women?” I laughed. “The closest I can come to that is the ones where I’m doing a formal traditional dance with my sisters on the grey dust plain under the stars. Except they’re not my sisters but that’s who the dream says they are.”
“Dreams can be like that,” he agreed solemnly and we lapsed into silence while we finished our drinks together.
We spent an hour back in our compartment reading unredeeming literature, then returned to the dining carriage for lunch. Having recently had congee and soup, I didn’t have much but Master Que demolished enough for two. Really, I should just have let him order for himself and then grazed off his side plates. There were more people having lunch than had dined the previous night because now we were past the celebration, people were travelling again. With that in mind, Master Que and I returned to our compartment to tidy it up in case we gained more travelling companions at the final stop before Xiamtian, a place called Pushang.
And gain travelling companions we did, a family of four whose children, boy and girl, seemed to be about as old as me. Unfortunately, just when I thought I might have people of my own age to talk to their parents took a look at Master Que and myself, plonked themselves in the middle seats of the compartment, and then repelled all attempts at conversation. Master Que raised an eyebrow at me in comment and went back to his book of no redeeming literary value. I pulled out Peony Missives and read about Lady Wen Cho’s then radical thoughts on the ownership of women’s labour. The family of four sat in silence, except for occasion whispers from the parents to the children telling them not to fidget. I had to wonder what had happened just before they’d gotten on the train.
As the train moved down out of the hills around Pushang I was glad that I had the window seat because I could split my attention between the economic and moral arguments in the book and the scenery outside. My age mates on the other side of the compartment lacked any such diversion, particularly as any attempt by them to look at the passing traffic in the corridor or to catch a glimpse out of any of the windows simply got them another whispered admonition to sit up straight and not wriggle. On reflection I think I preferred Madam Tsou’s verbal venom to whatever was going on with this family.
Fortunately for all of us there seemed to be none of the gi complications of Miss Wing’s family.
We were still an hour out of Xiamtian when Master Que said firmly, “Student, we will go to the dining carriage for tea now.” He sounded like the stereotypical strict teacher from a B-grade movie, and he had never called me ‘Student’ like that before. I assumed that he was playing up to our audience for some reason.
I marked my place in the book and closed it, then rose and bowed. “Yes, of course, Master Que.” I made sure that my tone was almost abjectly respectful, then made my apologies to our companions as I stepped past their legs to get to the door so I could hold it open for Master Que. I closed it behind him and then walked modestly behind him until we were out of sight and earshot of our compartment.
“I’ll bet two taels that they’re still exactly where we left them when we get back,” Master Que said over his shoulder to me, “and five that, if we time it right, they’ll be in the middle of an argument.”
I hurried a few steps to move up beside him and replied, “They do have the air of wanting to have a few words, don’t they?”
“Good manners dictate,” said Master Que serenely, “that we should vacate the room and let them clear the air.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I agreed just as serenely, and then we grinned at each other.
We spent a splendid half hour in the dining car with a pot of Quimong Red Dragon First Growth, and a plate of almond biscuits, bean paste cakes, and small lotus buns. If nothing else, we were well fortified for disembarking from the train and getting ourselves rooms for the night.
When we got back in our compartment the argument seemed to be over. The father looked flushed. The mother looked annoyed. The son looked sulky, and the daughter was not quite finished crying. Otherwise they were exactly where we’d left them. Master Que dropped a clean, crisply pressed, cotton handkerchief on the daughter’s lap as he went past.
That stirred her mother to speech, “What-?” Annoyance and indignation were thoroughly mixed in that word.
“I’ve made a lot of women cry over the years,” he said as he sat down, “and from experience I can tell you that no matter whose fault it all was, she will want that at some point. I assume she already has one, but that may not be enough,” and he went back to his book.
I followed his example and reopened Peony Missives. The mother looked astonished. The son still looked sulky. The father’s colour began to return to normal, and the daughter grasped the handkerchief in both hands like it was a lifeline.
They still didn’t talk to us, but a quarter of an hour later the conductor came through announcing that we would soon be terminating in Xiamtian. That, of course, involved a great getting down of luggage and organising ourselves. The mother wanted to stack their suitcases in the corridor, but then other passengers moving to the entrance vestibules already wanted to get past and they needed to be lined up instead – with the son positioned outside to keep an eye on them all. Master Que and I, when we could get to our bags, stacked them under the window so as not to get in the family’s way. The daughter, I noticed, was told to stay where she was and not make things worse. I didn’t know whether to wish I’d been a fly on the wall for their argument or be glad that I hadn’t.
We last saw them walking towards the ticket barrier at the end of the platform under the shelter of the wrought iron supported tile roof. We needed to collect our luggage from the guard and so went in the opposite direction. I saw the lady with the oracular shrine and we bowed to each other. The soldiers passed us too, and we exchanged greetings. The Shimba tinkers were ahead of us to the baggage car and we had to wait while they took possession of tools, boxes and bundles already laden on their own trolley, and a plethora of packs.
While we were waiting, the tinkers noticed us, of course, and in the midst of much bowing an older man pulled forward the one who’d pinched me. They both bowed, first to Master Que, and then to me with the older man urging the pincher to an apologetic depth.
“Kungdu Drukpa has an apology to make,” said the older man severely while still holding the younger man by the arm. “He may only have incarnated in this life time from being a light spirit but he should know better than to behave to you as he did, Jade Moon Lady.”
I was still trying to make sense of the way I’d just been addressed when the younger man prostrated himself in one move, catching his fall with his hands in a very practiced manner, then saying loudly, “Gracious Jade Moon Lady, I apologise for the offence and injury I did you with my uninvited handling of your person.”
I froze for a moment and then said, “I thank you for your apology, Kungdu Drukpa, and it pleases me to accept it.”
Still prostrated and in the same loud voice he replied, “Gracious Jade Moon Lady, your beneficence of spirit illuminates us all. Rightly are the virtues of the Moon Rabbit’s daughters lauded to the world.”
I was beginning to blush and to feel like everyone within earshot was looking at us. The two may not have been unrelated. I replied, “Thank you, although I’m not sure why you’re calling me those things. Are you allowed to get up yet?”
In reply he shot an upward look at the older man, who nodded in response. Kungdu Drukpa then rose to his feet before saying, “Only if I’ve apologised properly, Jade Moon Lady.”
“I think you’ve done that,” I told him, and I heard Master Que snigger under his breath beside me, “but why do you keep calling me Jade Moon Lady?”
“Our spirit talker,” he glanced at the older man, “asked the spirits because we didn’t know who you were, and that’s what they told him.”
The older Shimba shrugged. “Alcohol spirits don’t know much, and the train and track spirits are generally too young to know much either but they’d heard of you. You must have been on the trains a lot recently. Jade Moon Lady, translated out of spirit speech, is who they think you are.”
I bowed to him. “I would not wish to contradict the spirits,” I said politely, “but my personal name is Sung Nai.”
“Spirits tend not to be concerned with the personal names that we give ourselves and each other,” replied the spirit talker, “but I thank you for the knowledge of your personal name, Miss Sung. I am Namgyal Ngedup.”
“I thank you for the return of the courtesy, Namgyal Ngedup.”
Master Que interrupted with a polite cough. “At the risk of being crass in the middle of such exquisite manners, we are beginning to hold up baggage collection proceedings.”
Namgyal Negedup looked around, “You are right, Shadowed Master, and we too have places to be.” He and Kungdu Drukpa bowed again, and then the tinkers left in a group talking among themselves in what I assumed was Shimba. I couldn’t understand a word but it sounded to me like Kungdu Drukpa was catching a fair bit of brotherly ribbing.
Collecting the rest of our luggage went smoothly after that and we were soon on our way out of the station to a business hotel. Hopefully in a few days we would be able to find somewhere permanent, or at least a cheap but clean flat to be going on with.
This is now followed by A New City.