After chuckling over what might well have been an enormous scandal at the time, I sat down to start my artistic write up of items for my Art tutorial. The first of my three items was the scroll, so I talked about the balance between ink and blank page, made a note to check what colours the ink and page would have been initially, and talked about penmanship. I also tried a trick that Older Brother Hu had shown me when he’d been doing some Classical Studies homework, and looked at the page with an unfocussed eye.
I hadn’t expected to find anything else, but even I could recognise the penmanship hidden behind the main message as the same as that of the visible script, and my appreciation of Zhe Mung went up. “Please, Lord Chan, do not kill my sons. Allow us to serve you.” It, like the main message was signed ‘Zhe Mung, Baron of Kailong.’ I added the extra message into my notes, and then went on to the next item.
Lunch was leftovers from the previous night’s fish dinner plus fresh rice, and I showed Master Que the hidden message in Zhe Mung’s petition. “Probably not a stupid man,” observed Master Que, “and I hope the sons neither did anything to deserve execution nor were punished inappropriately. I trust his sons were as careful of his well-being.” We drank tea together, cleaned up the dishes and the kitchen, changed into practice clothes, and then spent three glorious hours working the kinks out of my gi. I certainly felt better for it at the end, and Master Que said he was pleased with me.
I showered, spent another hour organising my notes and checking my assignment drafts, then we had an early dinner and got ready to go to the movie. Master Que decided that we should walk, and so we took the route I’d been using to get to class every day. I couldn’t help but notice that, as the day businesses closed and the evening businesses opened, the feel of the area began to change. The neon lights turned on and my opinion of, for instance, The Lotus Pond on the opposite corner of the intersection at the bottom end of Kung Tao Street changed – I had thought it was a slightly dingy suburban restaurant, but all lit up and open it was revealed as a ‘modern’ yueji bar. More bars were beginning to open nearer the university, and the White Snake Laundry was the busiest that I’d seen it. I told Master Que what I’d heard about it being associated with Mr Teng’s group.
“While I applaud their legal endeavours,” remarked Master Que solemnly, “you and I should probably not frequent their establishment. I accompanied some of the local senior gi masters on their visits to the leaderships of the organisations involved in the other night’s altercations. Displeasure was expressed. Apologies were received from two parties, but not the Black Serpents. Apparently too many of them were in official custody, and hospital, at that moment for apologies to be on the menu.”
“Mr Teng’s situation worries me,” I admitted. “If he is an Immortal Scholar in a defective body, how many other people are there without the insight to know that’s what causing their problems? If certain predictions I am not going to consider in my decision-making process at this time are accurate, one day that could be me with exactly that problem. There should be treatments that at least remove the discomforts, shouldn’t there?”
“You realise, don’t you,” said Master Que quietly, “that for a long time any sort of mental disability was believed to be because of possession or black sorcery, even when those weren’t the causes? Then it was alcohol, moral degeneracy, or too much reading. I understand that the Northerners like to blame their mothers. The idea that it can be simply something that you can’t help and no-one caused is a new one, and many people are more comfortable with having something or someone to blame, even if there isn’t anyone.”
“Is that because we like magical thinking?” We were waiting to cross the street to the university entrance.
“Probably,” agreed Master Que. “I mean, time was everyone wanted to blame things on sorcerers, but you and I have some idea how hard it would actually be to do some of the things sorcerers used to be accused of.”
I asked quietly, “Things like giving an insane man temporary sanity?”
Master Que sighed. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? It might be hard, but things are possible.”
We made the cinema in plenty of time to buy our tickets, and I gathered from the discussions around us that one of the senior cinematography courses had been assigned the movie as one of their ‘readings’. I was not sure that I wanted to find out how they planned to take notes. Fortunately, there seemed to be an absence of small torches. There was also assigned seating, and Master Que and I had managed to get my preferred option of in the middle and up the back of the cinema. We were surrounded by cinematography students who, thankfully, kept quiet as they watched. I picked up a lot of extra details on the second viewing, for instance that the sorceress didn’t have full use of her dominant, left, hand and that was affecting her use of sorcery, but the other sorcerous character in the story didn’t have that impediment. I also realised that there was something funny going on with some of Mifune’s scenes, and that they were the ones where his sash-thing was brown, not yellow. On my first viewing of the movie I hadn’t noticed that the sash changed.
Master Que didn’t say anything until the credits started, then as he started to move he said, “That was interesting. The sorceress would have made a better Lady of the Domain than Lady Sumiko, but that was why Sumiko wanted to be a nun, wasn’t it?”
“The movie’s not over yet,” I answered. “There’s one more scene at the end of the credits.”
Master Que looked at me, and sat down again. Around us, students were getting themselves together and standing to go. A few near us had heard what I said, and sat too, but when that final scene started the others were queued down the aisle to get out the door. I sat through the reveal of the old monk as Mifune again, and picked up a few background details from the scene as it played through. It is probably my imagination that heard the end of the scene being punctuated by the erasure of unwritten notes.
Master Que’s comment was, “That was even more interesting, wasn’t it?”
“And I now have a theory,” I announced happily, and with some satisfaction.
“Oh, yes, what is it?” Master Que was looking indulgent, or so I thought.
“Those scenes with young Mifune aren’t really all of the same character,” I suggested. “I think Mifune had an identical twin, and that Shiro is the twin’s reincarnation.”
“That explains the monk’s initial interest in Shiro, too,” agreed Master Que.
“There were some background items in that final scene I’d like to have a better look at,” I added. “There was a picture of two ladies, and there were some swords. Maybe I should see the movie again….”
“Not tonight,” said Master Que with quiet firmness. “We are going to find you a bar with live music, remember?”
“Not tonight,” I agreed. “Aside from your terms for coming to the movie with me, they’re not showing it again tonight. Now, how do we go about finding a bar?”
It involved walking. I steered Master Que in the direction of The Artilleryman, which he approved of, in general, but rejected for its lack of live music. We then followed his nose, for alcohol he said, and his ears. Those led us outside the university walls, and down to the street outside the southern wall of the university – the same street as the house with the Sing Bao Residential College’s private exit in the back yard. That house, next to the old sealed gate was still for sale, and there was a nice little drinking establishment on the opposite side of the road at the next corner with an open-to-the-street courtyard that was full of young men. However, Master Que led me on past that for another block to an establishment that must have taken up a quarter of the block on which it stood.
The Blackman’s Redoubt looked like a small defensive tower, made of stone with only slim, tall windows on the outside. There was a cover charge for entry, which Master Que paid for us both, and I notice that the outer walls were at least a chi thick. Inside the door there was a small foyer with side doors leading to the conveniences and a cloak room. The main doors into the building’s interior were made of metal-bound, lacquered wood, with rings for handles. To the left of the doors there was an ancestral shrine, complete with daily offerings, with the portraits dominated by one of a Zanji man in pre-occupation Tang-jian robes. The small note beside the shrine advised that Nu Se Si was the black man for whom the establishment had been named, and that although he had come to Tang-ji as an entertainer, when the Invasion had occurred he had come to command troops defending the part of the outer defences of the Citadel that included the University. The Redoubt was a tribute to him and his forces, who were also included in the shrine.
I wanted to read more of the details on the information cards, but Master Que pulled open a door, and the music flooded out, the bass beat surprising me with a throb. “I’m used to deep-voiced drums,” he told me happily, “but this amplified stuff with electric strings is good too.”
What Master Que called ‘amplified stuff with electric strings’ were northern-style electric guitars, a northern drum kit, and a singer with shaggy hair. They were not singing the northern pop songs my older sisters had argued with my father over, or the rock my brothers had preferred; this was different, with more beat, and a vibration in the gut. Not just in the gut. After a few moments feeling the sound wash over me, I turned to Master Que and said, “This is like listening to the earth sing through my feet!”
He grinned back at me. “It is, isn’t it? Let’s get something to drink and find a table.” My teacher led the way to the bar where he brought himself a ceramic mug of something that was carefully being kept warm behind the bar, and a tall glass of a non-alcoholic drink based on mandarin syrup and bubbles for me.
Finding a table was harder, there wasn’t a mah jong game that Master Que could talk himself into for a start. What gave us a chance at one was that it was late, and people were starting to leave – Master Que and I had been to a movie first but apparently, a lot of people had come straight here, and it was a school night. A group of eight boys left the big table near the stage they’d been sitting around during the brief break between songs, muttering about curfew, so Master Que and I grabbed two of the chairs just as a group of four grabbed chairs on the other side of the table. As Master Que was saying, “Shall we share?”, I used my cleaning-honed gi-skills to move everything the previous occupants had left behind to sit in front of one of the unclaimed chairs.
The leather-jacket toughs and the metal pierced girls, whose arms the boys were hanging off, looked at the neat stack of dirty glasses and pile of mess I had made, looked at the affably smiling Master Que, and agreed. I think the waitress who bustled over to clear the table looked agreeably surprised with what she found, but possibly sorting the food pieces by type and size was a bit much. In my defence, even if you use gi to do it, dusting is still not exciting. After the waitress took away the empty glasses and the mess, the spare chairs were occupied by two people who seemed to be on their own. Master Que and I stayed until the band finished up, which worked out to two more rounds of drinks. I bought the first of those, for Master Que and myself so I could find out the cost, and he bought the last of them, including the two singles at the table because we’d gotten talking with them.
It is possible that one nearest me, who introduced himself as Han and had a thin little moustache on his upper lip, was trying to pick me up when he started the conversation, but that didn’t even occur to me at the time. My brain finally put the pieces together when Master Que and I were halfway home, and when I told him about it, he collapsed in laughter against the nearest wall. I will note that he had three mugs of warm spirits under his belt, and that his behaviour could have been far worse.
“And that is one of the reasons that people employ go-betweens,” he guffawed. “So they can be direct without getting a cold bucket of water thrown over themselves. Young Han either wasn’t direct enough, or he’s far outside your personal interests.” For a moment Master Que looked at me critically, “We do know that you’re interested in men, generally and theoretically, don’t we?”
I thought for a moment then answered, “Well, yes. I was madly, head over heels with Wong Duan when I started secondary school; he was a prefect and didn’t even know that I existed. Then there was the two years of madly fancying The Dragon Emperor in Zi and Ming, even though the actor as himself does nothing for me, and of course there’s Tai Ru Jin – my poster of him had such lovely torso muscle definition.” I smiled.
Master Que blinked. “I thought you admire his gi skills.”
“I do, but that’s not why I chose that poster.” I smiled again.
“You didn’t say anything when we had dinner with him.”
“I thought it would be impolite to mention it when he didn’t know me, and I didn’t want to be that creepy stalker fan. Particularly not when he was having such a good time talking to you. He really admires you, and I came away with a good impression of his character.” I shrugged and added, “What more could I want, really?”
“A number of things,” replied Master Que practically. “None of which you’re going to get standing around on a street corner, talking to me, in the middle of the night. Let’s go home and get some sleep.”
We successfully negotiated the li and a half home without mishap – the closest we came to an incident resulted in us exchanging formal bows with several employees of The Lotus Pond. This surprised the pair of policemen who were apparently there to ensure that the bar’s clientele left quietly, and that made me think that they had made assumptions about Master Que and me that I had not expected.
“Master Que, if I’m coming home on my own at this time of night, should I take the bus or a taxi instead of walking?” I looked around, it was nearly midnight and the world is a different place at that hour.
“It might be wise,” he agreed in what might have been a mock-sober tone. “Otherwise someone else might start something that you finish. We’ve seen how that ends – with the other person suspended upside down or encased in shadow shields.”
“I didn’t hurt them, or allow them to hurt themselves.” I felt it necessary to point that out. “Plus, they started it, but our local policemen wouldn’t be impressed with having to sort it out, would they?”
Master Que replied with great gravity, “I’m sure the ladies of The Lotus Pond would be highly amused, but amusing them might not be one of your ambitions.”
“True,” I agreed, “but I might want to find out where they buy their clothes. That peony casual robe wasn’t me at all, but the style of it would be good if I got it in a plain colour.”
“A green or blue,” agreed Master Que, “or possibly yellow-gold. The period it was based on was certainly right for the sort of thing that becomes you.” And that was how we wound up talking about clothes the rest of the way home.
Once we were there, I washed off the smells of the bar and went to bed with the alarm set for an hour later than for the rest of the week.
The first of my three classes of the day wasn’t until eleven, so I had time to do an hour’s gi practice after breakfast and before I left for the university. Master Que observed my practice with a cup of tea in hand, and sent me off with an admonition to work hard.
I suddenly remembered something, “Wasn’t the telephone technician supposed to come yesterday?”
“He did,” said Master Que, “while you were studying, and he has to come back today because the new handset they gave him was faulty. Hopefully by the time you come home tonight we’ll have a working house phone.”
I also remembered my letters of introduction from Professor Hu and decided to drop in at the main Physical Sciences buildings between my Physical Geography and Statistics lectures. It was likely that none of the people that the professor had referred me to would be available, but that would be true of any time I went to their offices uninvited. As long as I let them know that I would like to meet them, I would have achieved my goal for the day.
It was a good start.
This is now followed by Last School Day of the Week (Part 1).