It was the girl who bowed. “I am Thi Mung. Your teacher was very kind the other day. Now that I know you're also a student here, I can arrange to return his handkerchief to him.” She blushed. “I’m afraid that we were all very bad company that day – I must apologise.”
I answered, “It was obvious that you were all having a very trying day but frankly we’ve had worse fellow passengers on our journeys. Your family were models of restraint compared to some of them.”
“It’s kind of you to say so, Miss Sung.” Thi Mung bowed again.
Both of us looked expectantly at her companion, who blushed but said, “I don’t see why you should take precedence! And I’m not going to give you my name. Why should you have all the privileges?”
I wasn’t sure where that had come from and responded weakly with, “Privileges?”
“Rich kids from rich families trading on their networks to get places and introductions to important people,” he said bitterly, “while better scholars with fewer contacts flounder around without help!”
“My family isn’t rich,” I replied automatically, “and I got in on my results.”
As soon as I finished speaking Thi Mung said, “Miss Sung is a professional gi fighter, aren’t you Miss Sung? No doubt she and her teacher met Master Kung through his school or a gi association.”
“I am and we did,” I confirmed. “I don’t have my professional name yet so I can’t really introduce myself properly.”
Thi Mung’s friend, and possibly her protector, bowed with annoyance. “I’m Tsing Ying.”
“We went through school together,” added in Thi Mung, “and because his father works at one of the more remote mining camps Tsing Ying used to board down the road from us with the Yoongs.”
“It must be nice for you to have a friend doing the same course,” I observed. “I come from Jingshi over in Zhongxiaoshan so I doubt anyone else from my school is starting here this year.”
“So why are you here?” Tsing Ying had an aggressive line in questioning and I had to wonder if he was permanently angry.
“It’s the best Earth Sciences program in the country,” I replied, “and they still had a place they could give me when I turned eighteen just in time for the final place sweep.”
Tsing Ying went to say something, and then stopped. He opened his mouth again to ask in a slightly less brusque tone, “Would you like to come around the orientation fair with us to look at the stalls? For the company?”
I barely thought about before answering, “Yes, I would like that very much. The only other student I’ve met to talk to so far is doing Water Sciences and Modern Studies, so I imagine she’s spread rather thin today.”
“A double degree?” Thi Mung was impressed. “She’s going to be busy, isn’t she?”
“I imagine so,” I agreed. “We’re in the same Statistics tutorial group together so I will be seeing her at least a few times a week. Did you two get any classes together?”
“Only the Earth Sciences lectures and the Introductory Literature lecture and tutorials,” replied Tsing Ying. “Which corner of the fair do you want to start at?”
‘’Oh, anywhere,” said Thi Mung, “but I will want to spend time anywhere with clothes or sewing.”
“The nearest corner?” My suggestion wasn’t much more precise. “I want to talk to the University Gi Club – I think I want to join even if I can’t compete in the university and inter-university competitions.” As we started moving from our lunch area towards the fair I asked, “So which Introductory Literature lecture are you down for?”
“One on the first day of the week,” replied Tsing Ying, “and you?”
“Three on the third day,” I answered. “It’s one of those ones where I have a tutorial first.”
“Painful,” replied Tsing Ying. “That first tutorial is going to be interesting if you haven’t had the lecture first.”
“They’ll probably do introductions and set some readings,” said Thi Mung comfortably. “It will be fine. Now, Tsing Ying, is there anything you’re looking out for in the stalls?”
He ducked his head and blushed before answering, “My father suggested I look up the Young Men’s Association. He said they always have a really good gym and you can get accommodation with them anywhere.”
“Okay,” I said brightly, “that gives us a shopping list of things to keep an eye out for, doesn’t it? Um, Thi Mung, should we be looking for your brother too?”
“We might see him, but I haven’t arranged to meet up with him or anything,” she said sunnily. “We agreed that there are just too many people here today and we’re in different faculties, so our schedules don’t really mesh at all. If we see him, we see him,” she shrugged.
And so we ploughed into the fray of the first afternoon of the orientation fair.
Thi Mung was true to her word and we stopped at every stall that had sewing, thread, fabric or costumes as part of their display. Tsing Ying was gracious enough not to look bored during those stops and even consented to being decked out in a historical costume at one point, and its maker was right, he did have the shoulders for it. Thi Mung was an enthusiastic sewing person who made friends in every stall we stopped at except, possibly, the high fashion retrospective. There the girls just tried to make her feel small because the clothes they had on display weren’t the sort of sewing she did and they reminded me exactly of the meanest cliquey girls in secondary school.
I was just trying to think of a way to move us away from them when I spotted a near-gold coloured robe in their display and I asked without thinking, “Is that an original Xi Cu Chin, one in his style, or a replica?”
One of the mean girls gawked at me and asked disbelievingly, “You know who Xi Cu Chin is?”
“Only because I own that robe, or something very like it in green with jade on the girdle.” I looked the speaker up and down and added, “if you want to sell your own clothes someday then you really need to be nicer to people. Now I think Thi Mung and I need to be somewhere else. Good bye.” With that I took Thi Mung by the arm and led her out of the booth.
“That was unexpected,” commented Tsing Ying.
“They were being mean for the sake of being mean,” I replied. “No-one likes that.”
“I bet they don’t get called on it often though,” pointed out Tsing Ying. “You do realise that if you ever get invited to something with them you’re going to have to wear the robe just to prove you have it.”
“I don’t see that as a problem,” I told him. “Now what do we want to see next?”
“The next booth,” replied Thi Mung firmly, and so we moved on.
There were booths for both the Young Men’s Association and the Young Women’s Association. We found the University Glee Club but the Gi Club remained elusive. There were several other martial arts associations giving demonstrations and handing out pamphlets – the swords were pretty in more ways than one and I found the whole throwing people over your shoulder without using gi at all thing impressive. In the end I stopped and asked if anyone knew where the Gi Club was.
My decision to do so at the Combined Staff Society booth may have had a lot do with the demonstration bout they had running between Qiao Tao, the young man from the unexpectedly occupied house, and a taller, slimmer man of the same age who had had his hair pulled back in a ponytail. Aside from both combatants’ skill what I found fascinating was the visible, to me, red streaks of gi that followed the ends of Qiao Tao’s staff as it moved. The gi wasn’t doing anything but Qiao Tao was obviously interacting with it as he fought and I couldn’t see the same thing with his opponent at all. I filed it away in my mind as something to mention to Master Que.
In response to my query about the Gi Club, the Combined Staff Society counter person replied, “I’ve heard they’re not having a booth this year. Something about the committee don’t see why they should tout for new members when they have so many already.” He shrugged. “They’ll have their meeting times up on the board at the beginning of next week like the rest of us or they’ll run the risk of losing their gym privileges. Of course, you could join us instead.” He smiled brightly.
“I don’t use a weapon,” I demurred.
“We can teach you!” He added encouragingly, “And we have social activities that aren’t sparring or competitions.” He handed me some flyers. “Please come along, you might find that you like us.”
I replied, “Thank you,” and then the three of us moved on.
“Do you think,” asked Thi Mung as we looked over the display at the Gemmologists’ Association Booth that the bare chest thing was deliberate?”
“It got Sung Nai’s attention,” commented Tsing Ying.
“That wasn’t what I was looking at,” I replied absently as I looked at Association’s display of local, native and foreign jades. “One of the fighters was leaving gi trails with his staff. I haven’t seen that before.”
“You were looking at their staves?” Thi Mung sounded surprised.
“Weren’t we supposed to?” I looked at her quizzically.
“I think they were using their bare manly chests as a selling point,” she said. “Very nice ones, I thought.”
“I didn’t notice,” I admitted. “The gi thing was more interesting. Besides, I have brothers – what’s a bare male chest or two?”
“I’m beginning to feel embarrassed for them,” Tsing Ying was laughing. “There they were, trying to attract a female audience, and you were only interested in their skills!”
I blushed and then realised that if I was going to see Mr Han that afternoon, then it was time for me to leave. “I have to see the agent about the house I’m renting,” I apologised, “so I have to go now. I hope I’ll see you both tomorrow.”
“We’ll look for you,” promised Thi Mung. “What’s wrong with the house?”
“It’s still full of furniture that I’m not renting.” I smiled wryly. “Someone’s been through and marked some of it with dots, but they haven’t moved it yet so there’s no room for my stuff yet.”
“Good luck,” Tsing Ying bowed. He was much nicer when he wasn’t being angry at the world.
“Thank you.” I bowed back and then then was a flurry of bows as we said good bye and I hurried off to see Mr Han.
The traffic leaving the university was much less than when I’d arrive in the morning but I left as I’d arrived, in a taxi. I had the driver drop me just short of the street where Golden Mountain Real Estate stood, because the traffic on the shopping street where it lay looked horrendous, and he got another fare, a lady laden with shopping, almost before I was out the door. Mr Han was graciously pleased to see me, and had Miss Cheong fetch me tea even before I was seated. After she had done so, and closed the door behind her, I looked at Mr Han, the tea and then Mr Han again. Then I said, “You’ve got bad news for me, haven’t you?”
Mr Han sighed. “I’m afraid Miss Sung that my client is…fracturing. The late professor’s family remains united in their decision to sell the house but they are having disagreements over the furniture.”
“And the furniture is staying where it is until those are sorted out,” I guessed.
“Yes,” agreed Mr Han. “To the extent that they are requiring you to neither move nor use it. I’ve pointed that those are onerous terms given that you’re renting the house and are moving in today, but they are adamant – despite this not being an issue in our previous discussions.”
“And in almost complete contradiction to my understanding of the furniture clause in the lease,” I nodded my agreement. “I will mention it to Mr Su so that he can take it up with their legal representative.” I paused then added, “The family do realise that they can’t just turn up at the house anymore, don’t they?”
Mr Han sighed. “I’ve done my best to make that clear, both to the executors and to the three separate family groups who’ve come here today after being turned away from the house by your gi teacher. Apparently yesterday’s plan to move furniture failed when various parties found themselves contending for the same pieces.”
“So we shouldn’t allow them access without you and you’ll impose appropriate conditions on them?” I couldn’t remember my family ever having problems with a landlord but some of my schoolmates had had lives of domestic drama.
“Exactly, Miss Sung. This is not our matter to adjudicate, thank Heaven. One trusts that they can get themselves organised before the sale of the house goes through.” Mr Han drank some of his tea.
“Because if they can’t, then it does become my problem, doesn’t it?” I drank some of my tea too. “Abandoned goods, isn’t it?”
“One of the banes of a real estate agent’s existence,” agreed Mr Han. “Given the hour, may I offer you the use of one of our office phones to call Mr Su? Particularly as I suspect that you haven’t had the phone reconnected to the house yet.”
I agreed with Mr Han’s implication that the sooner I spoke to Mr Su, the better it would be so I took up the offer and made my call from the desk of one of Mr Han’s absent associates. I was able to speak to Mr Su himself and he assured me that the clauses he was inserting into the contract would cover the matter. He added, “Unfortunately we can’t contract to ensure that everyone engages their brain and realises what it is they’ve actually agreed to. Even the best contract can’t guarantee that you won’t have problems with the family later over this furniture, it can only put you on a sound legal footing when dealing with the problem.”
“Thank you, Mr Su. I’m sorry to have bothered you.” I was beginning to feel a little silly for having gotten worried.
“Not at all, Miss Sung.” He sounded benevolently paternal on the other end of the phone. “If clients always let me know when wrinkles, expected or unexpected, developed in their affairs then those affairs would go much more smoothly. Thank you for keeping me up to date.”
We exchanged farewell courtesies and ended the call. I thanked Mr Han and Miss Cheong for their assistance and then went home. I only went one stop too far on the number 738 bus, but that let me stop off at a grocery store and grab some fish, sambal paste and pickled vegetables to go with rice for breakfast.
When I got back to the house, Master Que was politely but firmly denying entry to a woman accompanied by four men and a moving van. “No,” he said as I came up the pavement. “You had your chance for free access before we moved in. Come back at a reasonable hour with the real estate agent.”
“But I’ve hired this van, and we’re here now.” The woman was as politely determined as Master Que. “It’s just a few things I was promised.”
I had reached them now and I decided that I wasn’t going to be a coward. I bowed to everyone, “Master Que, madam and gentlemen. Madam, as the tenant, I am required to refer you to the agent so he can supervise your access to the property. I understand that there is some disagreement in the family over who gets what furniture, and I’m not getting involved or blamed in that at all. In the words of a wonderful phrase one of my brothers brought home from his studies, ‘Not my circus, not my monkeys.’ If it’s been agreed that you can have those things then I’m sure Mr Han will be delighted to arrange access for you, but we’re not letting you in tonight.” I added, “Aside from anything else, I don’t know any of you.”
A man who was almost old enough to be my father, if I’d been his first born straight out of secondary school, guffawed and said, “She’s right there Mum, we’re strangers to her and this gentleman, trying to get them to let us into their house. You wouldn’t do it.”
The older woman looked indignant for a moment and then much struck. “You’re right, I wouldn’t.” She bowed to Master Que. “My apologies. I’m afraid I got a little carried away. I intend to be back, but I will make sure that I go through the estate agent.”
“Thank you.” Master Que bowed gravely. “Come inside, Sung Nai, I have dinner almost ready. You must be famished.”
We bowed goodbye to the would-be removalists and went in. Master Que had cooked rice and was ready to cook a tofu stir-fry with black bean sauce. We laughed when I found out that he’d bought sambal paste and pickled vegetables for breakfast too. After dinner was cleaned up, I picked a room to be temporarily mine and laid out my bedding on the floor. I washed and was in bed by nine.
I dreamt of counting calligraphy sheep.
This is now followed by A Morning Of Things.