Because of the restrictions that had been put on my use of the house by the owners while they sorted out their furniture issues, the extended search of the premises was Mr Tchung’s problem and not mine. The secret room proved to have completely separate plumbing arrangements to the rest of the house and no electricity – it had been missed when the house was wired for power sometime during the Occupation. Speaking of plumbing, it turned out that one of the grease traps wasn’t a grease trap and although the cavity tested positive for traces of explosives, it didn’t contain anything interesting - like sweaty blasting sticks. There was a secret compartment in the secret room itself that contained two Maksim Automatica pistols and ammunition for them – I didn’t get to see them but the police and the evaluation team had an excruciating polite discussion in front of me concerning who would have custody of those particular treasures. The surprise, for me, was that the bathroom I’d been using on the top floor of the main house had access into a compartment in the ceiling space above which was fitted out as a radio room with the antenna running the length of the roof ridge. I admit I hadn’t paid much attention to the little linen and toiletries cupboard thing in the corner of the room that concealed the stairs except to think that it was an old fashioned oddity. I thought all the findings together were particularly impressive because it was clear from the objects’ nature and locations that the Lao family members who’d done this had never been caught by the Occupation forces.
When I got out of the house to go for my neighbourhood exploring walk I stopped at the greengrocer and bought two peaches and two citrus of the same size. Unfortunately I didn’t get as far as either of the other two butchers’ shops I’d been told about, but I did find a column commemorating a battle fought on the site some seven hundred and twenty years earlier that was so horrendous it had given the locality its name, Xuexing meaning ‘reeking of blood’. I had assumed there had been an abattoir here once. Apparently the battle had been fought to protect the flank approach to the Citadel and I found it interesting that the survivors included Qing Gao and Lao Li. I also noted more Qings and Laos among the dead, apparently the late professor’s family and that of the greengrocer were long-term local residents, and great slabs of several other family names - suddenly I realised that all the men of the village that had stood nearest here back then had turned out for that battle, and the village had paid a terrible price. I bowed to the memorial and took myself home, where I made a pyramid of fruit in offering to the courage of long past Laos before taking myself to the kitchen for more tea.
I spent a little while feeling young, and small, and untried, but then I took myself to cleaning the corridors of the front house because that was something I could do that made me not feel useless. I got the entire top corridor and both stairwells done before Master Que came and found me. Apparently I had missed the return of Eldest Cousin Lao and his wife, which Master Que recounted to me with great glee while he chopped vegetables for a stir fry and I drank tea.
He particularly enjoyed critiquing Madam Eldest Cousin’s sleight of hand skills while admiring her good taste. “I had a girlfriend like her once,” he added. “Acquisitive but only because she liked the bright and shinies, plus she had younger brothers and sisters to support. She cost me quite a lot of money, one way and another, but I’ll give her her due and point out that all that money went into actual education. Two brothers are accountants, two sisters are teachers and three more siblings are nurses.” He added reflectively, “I hope they try to take care of her, because she did a lot for them even if she is a difficult person.”
Intrigued, I asked, “If it’s not rude Master Que, how long were you with this lady? Why didn’t you marry her?”
He reduced a quarter of a cabbage to shreds before he answered. “About ten years, with a little on and off. Aside from the fact that she wasn’t interested in marrying me, I would have made a dreadful husband. Besides, I think there was some scholar fellow she always held a torch for. As for me, I can respect a woman who is prepared to hustle in order to support her family and I thought better me than someone who would have turned nasty when he realised why his money was disappearing so fast. We finally broke up when I turned up to the youngest one’s graduation as a registered nurse.”
“Why then?” I poured myself some more tea.
“She thought I hadn’t known, and that showed her that she hadn’t been as clever as she thought she’d been.” He shrugged and swept the mushroom he’d sliced into a bowl. “I wounded her pride, even though I’d genuinely come to celebrate the achievement. I really was proud of them all.” He paused over the ginger. “They and you are the closest I’ve come to raising a family.” Then he pointed the knife at me, “Hug me in commiseration or cry, and I’ll set you to doing deep squats until dinner is ready.”
“I’m sure they would be good for me,” I agreed piously.
At that point the heads of the police team and the evaluation team came in to let us know that they were leaving for the day, so I abandoned my tea to find out if we would have more policemen overnight and to see the teams out. We were to have policemen overnight again because there was a specialist team to come through in the morning to check for some of the more exotic things that had been found in loyalist safe houses and they wanted to control access to the site until then. I asked about my bathroom and was asked in return to use a different one overnight.
The evening seemed to go quite fast from there. I got my notebooks, bag and clothes ready for the next day and reset my alarm clock. Master Que and I ate dinner in the kitchen, and then cleaned it up. I used the bathroom one floor down from the one I had been using before going to bed early, then dreaming confusedly of dashing scholars in running gun fights with Occupation baddies in vintage cars. Then there was something about turning up for my first lecture in the wrong building and no clothes.
Finally the shrill tones of Madam He rescued me from a confusing mix of inappropriate texture and size, and I climbed gratefully out of the nest of bedclothes I was sleeping in to face my first day at tertiary school.
I’d used the bathroom downstairs and gotten dressed before my alarm clock went off. The ancestral shrine and I both had vegetable pickles and rice to break our fast, and I offered tea to both policemen on duty, but only the one outside in the laneway accepted the offer. The one in the breezeway between the backside house and the main house turned it down, saying that he’d never been able to drink the stuff on an empty stomach. Master Que was in the kitchen when I returned after offering around tea; he was dressed, as far as I could tell, in slippers, the trousers from a set of blacks, and a short casual robe with a darkly coloured landscape print on it.
He happily accepted a cup of tea from me and asked, “So, how are you this morning?” His robe was the sort of thing that’s often sold by resort hotels to advertise themselves and condemned by everyone else, particularly my maternal grandmother, as cheap tatt but Master Que made the whole thing look harmonious.
“Trying not to admit to myself how nervous I am.” I replied. “It can’t be too different to secondary school, I hope.”
“I couldn’t tell you,” admitted Master Que. “I didn’t go to a tertiary school and I barely set my foot in the door of a secondary school. There was a brief period when my then-master made me attend but I think the school complained after I was called on to recite a passage from something I’d read in class and I recited a stanza from Honour Among Horses. The teacher seemed to think that the parable about the herd of mares and the two stallions was inappropriate.”
“Because of the point it was making or because of the metaphor?” Some of my classmates’ parents in secondary school had gotten upset about some unexpected things.
“That was never made clear to me,” replied Master Que. “He might have been offended that I was in the habit of reading philosophy.”
“Master Que,” I fixed him with a sharp look, “you weren’t in a class for the intellectually delayed, were you?”
“No, one for those who hadn’t been in formal schooling but the Scholar who had our class was expecting to get a completely uneducated group and, in general, we weren’t. Some of us, not me, had better handwriting than he did.” Master Que snorted. “He did manage to teach me that even learned scholars can be complete idiots, especially about things outside their field of study.” He drank some tea and then added pointedly, “You might want to keep that in mind, given what you’re about to begin. Good luck.”
I got out of the house within five minutes of the time I’d set myself to allow for delays and left Master Que to deal with antiques evaluators and police forensic teams. The walk to the university took me past an office of the Telegraphic Division of the Postmaster General and I resolved to drop in on the way home and organise to have the phone connected to the house. Arriving at the university I made my way through the stream of arriving students and achieved the Yu Tan Kee Lecture Theatres with about fifteen minutes to spare. Thi Mung and Tsing Ying arrived a few minutes later.
“I’m sorry if we’re late,” said Thi Mung bowing, “but we came with my brother and left him in the Physical Sciences precinct.”
“You’re not late,” I bowed in reply. “There’s at least ten minutes before the lecture starts – if we go in now we should get good seats.” I paused and added, “Even if we take the stairs we should have plenty of time.”
As it happened, we got to pick exactly where we wanted to sit. There had been an enormous scrum of people outside the ground floor lecture theatre queueing to get in and everyone who had started up the stairs with us had gone to the lecture theatre on the next floor. At the appointed starting time when Professor Tian strode in with a bundle of papers and established himself at the lectern the room wasn’t even a third full – there were the three of us and a scattering of older students whom I assumed to be either repeating the subject or taking it as an elective for another degree.
“Good morning,” began the professor, “I am Professor Tian Pan and this is Introductory Geology. Now is the time to leave if that is not the subject that you were expecting. In the future this lecture will begin on time but as today is the first day of the new academic year and this is the first lecture of the year for the intake of new students, we will wait until the overflow of aspiring scholars from the two lecture theatres downstairs where this lecture is also being given are shepherded up to us before we go into the announcements and the lecture itself.” He looked around the room severely and added, “I will expect all of you to be ready to proceed as soon as the others are seated. You may speak among yourselves until then but I will not answer questions until everyone else is here. Thank you.”
I don’t know what the older students did, but the three of us made sure we had paper, pens and pencils ready to go. Professor Tian sounded like a strict teacher who was bending over backwards to be fair because this was just a thing that happened, but…. In another two minutes more students, frazzled and slightly disorganised started coming in through the entrance to the room.
“Everyone who’s arriving now, move to the centre or as close to the wall as you can in the row you’ve chosen,” directed Professor Tian. “By the time you’re all in here the room will be full and as the lecture is supposed to have already started, we need to get everyone in and seated as quickly as possible.” The professor’s approach didn’t encourage dithering and his final comments encouraging the last few late arrivals into the last seats in the front row were just short of scathing.
As those last few people were pulling out their note-taking material he surprised me by saying, “Congratulations, your ability to follow directions and get organised is an improvement on previous years. Please, try not to let that change. For those who’ve only just arrived, I am Professor Tian Pan and this is introductory Geology. Before we begin I have an important announcement concerning the Introductory Physical Geography lecture this afternoon for those of you who have their Introductory Literature lecture at two. We are well aware that you will not have time to cross the campus to get from there to here in time for the stated start time of the Geography lecture.” Beside me both Thi Mung and Tsing Ying made slightly distressed movements but the professor was going on, “You will attend both lectures. After Introductory Literature finishes, you will make you way to this room where Professor Yan Jiang will begin the lecture half an hour later than the stated time. Other students are to please present themselves to one of the other two lecture theatres and not come to this one unless you are moved for space reasons. The situation has arisen from some form of misunderstanding with a new scheduling coordinator and the faculty is endeavouring to get humanly possible timings incorporated into schedules for next term, if not sooner.” He paused and looked around the room. “The fact of the matter is that you are all human and even, if you’re not used to it, at some point in your time at this institution you will fail at something. It might be an assignment, an assessment, a subject, the entire course, or a relationship. If you’ve never failed before, all I can say is, ‘Hello, and welcome to the human race.’ If your problems are geology related, by all means come and see me, but if your problem is personal please go see one of the counselling staff – it’s not that I don’t care, although I may not care about your particular personal issues, it’s that I’m not good at relationships and things like that. If you have a problem, get help from the right sort of expert. Now, geology.”
He took a deep breath and continued, “Geology is the study of the substance of the world on which we stand. It examines what it is formed of, how that substance came to be and how it changes. It works a massive scale over epochs and it can be fruitfully engaged through a microscope. It influences where we live, how we build and what we eat. With the tools provided to you by a study of geology you can discern the shape of the continents of this world in times past, deduce what they are likely to be in eons to come, decide how to build a terrestrially-based structure, and understand why coastal land in northern Konkosi is not a prudent long term investment. You can even deduce and study the structure of the other celestial bodies in this solar system, but it all starts here in Introductory Geology.” He went on for another three quarters of an hour and I wasn’t the only one who spent the time scribbling furiously. Some of my secondary teachers had warned me that tertiary school would be like this but they hadn’t warned me that every sentence the lecturer uttered would seem important.
Professor Tian finished with, “You should all have a copy of Introductory Geology by Professor Anh by now – please make sure that you have the fourth edition and not the third, there have been some significant revisions in certain sections in the light of new evidence. If you think you missed anything today then you should read Chapter One. You should probably read it anyway. I strongly recommend that you all read Chapters Two and Three before next week – you will be in a better position to get the best out of our time together if you do. You will, no doubt, receive further readings from your lab and tutorial leaders – I would advise you to get through them before next week’s lecture too. Also, please, attend your labs and tutorials – Heaven itself won’t get you through this course if you don’t do that and put in the study hours. Any questions?” He looked around.
A number of people put up their hands and the professor pointed, “The gentleman with the cast on his raised hand, yes?”
The student stood and bowed, “Ho Cheung, Learned Professor. Are there printed lecture notes available?” He waved his cast gently. “I’m having a little trouble writing at the moment.”
Professor Tian regarded him briefly with narrowed eyes and said, “Generally no, but come and see me with a medical certificate Mr Ho and we may come to an arrangement. Anyone else with a medical disability affecting their note taking may do the same but the point of taking your own notes is that it is an important learning method for some people. Others just need to be doing something while they listen to be able to absorb the information.” A number of hands went down and he said, “The young lady with orange pom-poms for hair.”
“Tang Jung, Professor Tian,” there was a pause and I assume that she was bowing because she was behind me. “In the event that one of us has a legal or other binding obligation to be somewhere else at the time of an examination, what can we do?”
I could see the professor raise an eyebrow. “I believe that was covered in the material you received on registration, Miss Tang. I suggest that you and anyone else with questions on assessment procedures read that material.”
Most of the other hands went down but Tang Jung asked, “Are additional copies available, Professor? I’m afraid my brother ate a few pages of the copy I received.”
Both eyebrows went up at that. “Your brother ate it? You are indeed blessed with a special relative Miss Tang. I’m sure the University Administration Office would be delighted to provide you with all the assistance you may require.” He looked around and said, “If there are no more questions, we are done here.” Then he looked at me, “Miss Sung Nai, if I may see you for a few moments before you leave? Thank you.”
I looked at Thi Mung and Tsing Ying and shrugged to show that I had no idea what was going on, then I packed up my things and made my way out of the row and down to the front.
The professor was wintery again. “I see that you continue in your intention to be diligent, Miss Sung.”
“I do, sir, and after your comments at our first meeting I thought I should make sure that I was in your lecture this morning – something that served me and my new friends well with the seating, sir.”
“Are you accusing me of benevolence, Miss Sung?” He was indeed wintery.
“Only of good advice, sir.” I bowed.
“Keep in mind Miss Sung that I want all of you to succeed, if you put in the work.” I bowed again and then he asked, curiosity in his voice, “If you don’t mind me asking, why silk?”
I looked down at what I was wearing. “I’m a professional gi fighter, sir, although I don’t yet have my professional name. My teacher and manager says that dressing with a certain style helps build my reputation. Hence silk, the boots, etcetera.”
He blinked. “You haven’t met the University Gi Club yet, have you?”
“No,” I shook my head, “they didn’t have a stand at orientation.”
“This could be a very interesting year, Miss Sung. Very interesting indeed. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a meeting shortly.” With that he left and I had no idea why he had wanted to talk to me. I went back to my new friends to work out whether we were staying together for now or separating.
This is now followed by A More Normal Afternoon.