We arrived home to find an unexpected piece of street theatre in play. There were no fewer than four furniture vans in the street outside, two parked on each side of the road and, thankfully, pointing in the direction of traffic flow. There was a rather ratty, dark brown Ming-goa sedan double-parked outside the house next door so that a late model silver foreign luxury car was hemmed in and a woman on the footpath, who I recognised by voice as Madam He, was berating a man in well-cut scholar’s robes for parking in her car space. Outside our gate Mr Han was back to back with a taller middle-aged man in business-style blacks and a traditional cap quartered in blue and red, and the two of them surrounded by a group of people demanding entrance to the house. Another group, labourers and drivers I thought, stood lounging beside the two trucks on our side of the road with the air of men who were being paid for their time whether they were able to work or not.
Some of the motorcycle emporium staff had come outside to stand on the footpath and watch.
I took a deep breath and ploughed on past them. It definitely occurred to me that if these were the late scholar’s relatives come to clear out his things then an absence of those things was going to make my life easier. When I got close enough I said loudly, “Mr Han, I thought this was to happen by appointment only. Did the memorandum not get distributed?”
“Miss Sung!” Mr Han bowed slightly and with a harried air. “I agree that was the arrangement. However, the late Professor Lao’s youngest sister, Madam Chu Qen, discovered that she still had a key to the property, rallied her descendants and arranged to come here today without talking to the solicitors or myself. Their solicitors, who sent Mr Tchung here to represent them,” the man in the cap bowed, “did hear about it and we came here to intervene. You, of course, were out.”
I bowed. “We had a business meeting elsewhere. Can I hope that there has been an agreement reached on who gets which pieces of furniture?”
“Not that my firm has been advised of,” said Mr Tchung. “This entire incident is highly irregular!”
I asked quietly, “Perhaps Madam Chu Qen has come to take custody of the family shrine? I have not been neglecting it, but the current state of affairs is slightly awkward.”
I took a closer look at the group around us. There was: an elderly woman of the type usually described as “Indomitable” whose birth probably pre-dated the end of the Occupation; three middle-aged couples who, in the main, didn’t want to be there; another middle-aged man on his own who wore a collar pin embossed with the character for Lao on his blacks; the lady Master Que and I had turned away earlier in the week; the latter lady’s son; and a number of younger people who were probably the children of the middle-aged people.
Master Que said what I was thinking. “This is a lot of people here for a family that doesn’t live in Xiamtian.” He raised an eyebrow and I swear that every school-aged child in the group gave an apologetic bow.
“My home is an hour and a half away if you take the new highway,” said the oldest woman. “This was achievable, if inconvenient. Now, just let me take the pieces-.”
“I’m sorry, but no.” I bowed apologetically myself. “I am not getting caught in the middle of your family discussion about who gets which remembrances of the late Professor. There is an arrangement and you need to stick to it, ma’am.”
She snorted. “Then what am I here for then?”
I bowed again. “Obviously, ma’am you and your assorted relatives in various degrees are here to finish surveying the furniture to see what you do want and what you can negotiate with. I couldn’t help but notice that it seems no-one has been through the three floors of storage in the backside house yet. Some of those pieces are broken, but others seem to have been put out there simply because they were old.” I kept my face as guileless as I could.
“That would be acceptable,” said Mr Tchung, “as long as nothing is taken away today.”
“The family shrine should be the responsibility of the senior male blood line,” said the man with the collar pin. “I will endeavour to make Eldest Cousin Lao aware of his responsibilities.”
One of the middle-aged women who didn’t look as if she wanted to be somewhere else asked, “When you say ‘because they were old’, how old are we talking?”
I answered honestly, “I saw a folding screen that was either Fu or a reproduction. You know, one of the ones with painted panels and a carved frame all of a piece.”
Several hours later no furniture had been removed from the house but several competing claims to pieces of furniture had been withdrawn because members of the Lao-Chu connection had found equivalent pieces they wanted more in the backside house. After one chance discovery of a set of hair brushes a coalition of three mid-teen cousins methodically opened every drawer, cabinet and wardrobe in the building and consequently found 96 copper taels, 4 silver taels, one gold half tael, three unempty jewellery boxes, a number of two hundred year old romance novels, four bundles of valuables tucked away in various hidey-holes, an antique travelling apothecary’s kit and the full, bloodstained, uniform of a foreign soldier from the time of the Invasion – even his identity tags and personal weapons were there.
Master Que and I made tea for Mr Han, Mr Tchung, and various people who’d had a nasty surprise.
There was a lack of dead bodies in general and I for one was glad of it. I slipped the family shrine another cup of tea on the grounds that it was better to be safe than sorry. Because of the uniform, and the antique handgun, the police were sent for and it was Mr Tchung’s job to deal with them as the estate’s representative. I washed up the cups and made more tea.
As she accepted the cup of tea I was offering Madam Chu asked, “Why are you only using the same four cups, dear? There’s an entire cupboard of cups and mugs in the main kitchen.”
I replied calmly as I handed the next cup to one of her daughters-in-law, a canny lady who’d marked out two matching broken beds on the basis that she’d be able to assemble one good one from the pieces, “Since the disagreement over furniture, I’ve received instructions from the estate’s representatives that I’m not to use or move any of it – I’ve referred the matter to my solicitor. These four cups are mine.”
The elder Madam Chu snorted. “That sounds like the sort of knee jerk reaction Eldest Nephew Lao would come out with after his wife has been after him. We’ll have to speak to Mr Tchung about it because I’m not sure that’s even legal if the place has been rented as furnished.”
Younger Madam Chu, well the younger Madam Chu to whom I was serving tea at that moment because there were three of them present, said, “I would certainly tell my children not to sign a lease with such a clause, even if it was only for six weeks.”
“It’s not in the lease,” I told her, “it was added on later.”
Both ladies drew their breath in sharply. “And I swear Eldest Nephew’s wife wasn’t interested in any of the furniture until she saw what everyone else wanted,” added the elder lady.
“To be fair, Mother Chu,” pointed out her daughter-in-law, “I don’t think any of us gave a thought to late Uncle’s furniture until Miss Sung here asked what we were going to do with it.”
“I know,” the elder Madam Chu admitted, “and I never thought about the backside house because my grandparents never let us in there when we were children….” She stopped suddenly and then went on with dawning comprehension, “They knew there was at least one thing in there the family couldn’t afford to have found. I think perhaps I should speak to Mr Tchung and those nice policemen.”
After much discussion, which mostly didn’t involve me, it was arranged that the police would come back in the morning to conduct a full search of the premises to see if there was body to go with the bloody but empty uniform. At the same time the estate would have a team ready to go through the extensive contents of the backside house and catalogue them - I gathered that something like this had been recommended before but vetoed by Eldest Nephew /Cousin Lao on the grounds of cost. I farewelled the Lao-Chus, who seemed to be a nice group of people, if a little tied up in knots about furniture they hadn’t really cared about before, and greeted the policemen who would be making sure that no-one disturbed the presumed crime scene in the night.
I set my alarm clock for early and went to bed hoping for pleasant dreams.
I was woken from my dream of reporting Shimba soldiers by the alarm clock and not the penetrating tones of Madam He. In the still, quiet hour of the morning I was able to go through my gi forms in one of the garden rooms, make tea for everyone including the shrine and the two policemen on duty, and make my shrine offerings before I became aware of someone at the front gate.
It was still earlier than anyone I was expecting so I walked down from the main house to the street entrance wondering who it was and what we could do to the bell beside the gate so that it told us we had visitors but didn’t wake the whole neighbourhood. At the gate ringing the bell were a middle-aged couple. He wore plain blacks while she wore patterned silk blacks and dark green jade jewellery.
The man bowed. “Miss Sung, I’m Lao Min, the late Professor’s eldest nephew and the executor of his estate. My wife and I are here to discuss the difficulties of the last few days.”
“Mr Lao, Madam,” I bowed to both of them, “I’m sure you’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to be here at this hour as I’ve been told that none of your family live in Xiamtian, but I’m sure that you should be having discussions with my solicitors, not me. That is one of the points of having solicitors – they conduct discussions on my behalf so I don’t become overwhelmed with the respect due to my elders and agree to things I shouldn’t.”
“We wouldn’t dream of suggesting anything improper or illegal,” protested Madam Lao.
“Of course not,” I agreed with a smile, “but something not in my best interests wouldn’t have to be either of those things, would it?”
“We want to look at the contents of the backside house,” admitted Mr Lao. “I understood that it was mainly broken rubbish but the estate’s solicitors now inform me that’s not the case.”
”Honestly,” I replied, “a lot of it is broken rubbish, but some of it was simply outmoded or out of fashion. I mean who wants a two century old stove,” Madam Lao nodded, “except that all the facing ceramic tiles are still intact?”
Madam Lao asked sharply, “Shuan ware tiles in red and white?”
“Turquoise and green on white,” I replied and she took in a sharp breath, “but there’s also the little matter of the potential crime scene that the police are due to investigate today.”
“Uncle the Younger Professor would never have committed a crime of violence,” said Mr Lao sharply.
“I doubt the late Professor Lao was involved, sir,” I answered politely. “Yesterday’s find obviously dates back to the Occupation, if not the Invasion itself. The body that went with the uniform may never have been here, and if any of your ancestors were guilty of anything I’m sure it would have been of being loyalists.” I added, “Frankly sir, I’m sure that we would all be more comfortable if the police find anything that might be related to an act of violence than someone stumbling across it unexpectedly. Perhaps you should come back when the police search team arrives and introduce yourself as an interested party.”
“I still don’t see why the police were even called in,” said Madam Lao, possible a touch pettishly.
“Enough dried blood to constitute a major body part and the presence of an officer of the court, to wit Mr Tchung,” I replied briskly. “He has obligations even if the rest of us hadn’t cared.”
Thankfully the Laos took my very unsubtle hint and went away. That gave me time to have breakfast, clean up after myself, and then make the small kitchen and certain other facilities in the western building ready for use by the police team and the estate’s evaluators during the day. I even had time to sweep off the verandahs, then brush off and wipe down the furniture in the two most northwest garden rooms before anyone official arrived.
Master Que got up late and ate breakfast on the verandah of the main house, observing the initial comings and goings of the police and the evaluation team with observant benevolence. He was graciously pleased to permit Mr Tchung to join him and I supplied them both with fresh tea. I even remembered to tell Mr Tchung about my early morning visitors, which news he received with what I can only describe as an air of professional inscrutability.
The police and the evaluators were graciously pleased with the bathroom and kitchen arrangements I made for them, to say nothing of the spaces to sit when they had breaks.
With everyone settled, I started dealing with the dust issues in the spaces of the house that I was allowed to touch. These were mainly corridors and stairwells, but I had to start somewhere anyway.
Many chi of lacquered wood detailing and gold or cream walls later, I was ready for a break. I’d brushed what felt like buckets of dust off the walls and some of them were going to have to be washed. I was also coming to the conclusion that I didn’t have nearly enough wood polish. I was also beginning to have views on the subject of wooden floors, steps and risers. There were also fine gaps between the boards and so far I had found six pins, three needles, and a note in a childish hand that had been shoved into a gap under a stair tread.
I went down to the kitchen to get tea and found, to my surprise, that it was lunch time. Master Que surprised me by making me sit down to rice and homemade dumplings, and then forbidding me to do anymore cleaning until after I’d had a long walk, or spent a few hours reading a book, or something. I tried to protest but he just looked at me in a way that said volumes. I submitted to having the afternoon before I started tertiary school as a period of relaxation and then Mr Tchung bustled in from wherever he’d been.
“It’s quite extraordinary,” he said as he took the cup of tea that Master Que offered him. “The police have found a secret room on the second floor of the backside house. No sign of a body or more blood, but they seem to think that the Lao family was hiding loyalists in there back during the Invasion and the Occupation. Now they’re double-checking everything. Just in case of tunnels and weapons caches.”
“A loyalist safe house.” I drank a lot of tea in one go. “That shouldn’t be too bad, right?”
This is now followed by Matters Do Not Become Less Complex.