I got up before the He family next door, that or He Ban was permitted to sleep in on weekends, and quickly dressed before going downstairs to address the family shrine before spending a quiet hour in the garden on my gi forms. When I went back inside for breakfast Master Que was just pouring out tea for both of us, and he had rice with pickles set out on the table for us both.
We ate for a little while in silence, and then he asked, “I was wondering, why the garden and not the training room for your practice?”
I thought about it for a moment, my chopsticks halfway to my mouth and said, “It’s a nice morning, I didn’t want to disturb anyone, and I was practicing forms, not fighting combinations or strategies.” I ate the food I was holding. “It’s a different set of external,” I thought about the word I wanted, “input to the practice room.”
Master Que nodded. “Being able to hold your centre in different circumstances is important. Keep in mind too that gi is not your only solution to problems; this week has had you using gi out of the ring much more than usual.”
I suddenly felt guilty about yesterday morning’s shadow ball. “I, uh, did it again yesterday morning too,” I confessed, “to help a classmate get away from someone who wanted her contact details. She had her back to a wall, and it seemed like the least messy thing I could do.”
“What exactly did you do?” Master Que drank some of his tea while I described my rescue of Ying Li. When I was done, he nodded and commented, “I approve the lack of fuss and bother involved. Overuse of gi in everyday matters might be deplored, but it sounds to me like your friend needed rescuing and almost anything else would have been…loud. I might have tripped him over, myself, but then I am a notoriously nasty piece of work.”
“You keep saying that, sir, but I’ve seen no real evidence of it,” I observed.
“Ah, but you have been a student in my care for most of your life,” he observed, “and, as I have remarked before, a good influence on my behaviour. Now, when do we have to leave to get to your appointment with Mr Su? One should always be on time for one’s solicitors and the police.”
We caught the bus into the city and presented ourselves at the offices of Dong, Pan and Su ten minutes before my appointment. The young male receptionist offered us tea and a seat while we waited; we declined the tea and accepted the seats. Mr Su ushered another client down the corridor from his office and exchanged farewell bows with them as they left before nodding to us and returning to his office. Master Que continued leafing through a financial magazine, and I read a broadsheet article deploring the northernisation of modern youth that sounded like no-one I had ever met….
Mr Su came to greet us just in time to rescue me from the perils of more yellow and purple journalism – Assimilation or Ghetto: The minority dilemma or Average family size shrinks: Are we having enough children? Based on the one article I had already resolved not to order the weekend edition of the Southern Tribune, because reading one of their articles was like seeing a train wreck in slow motion, and just as impossible to look away from.
Once we were in his office, Mr Su got down to business. First, we discussed the agency contract. Master Que and I were satisfied with the stated terms, which included my right to get any proposed contract with a potential sponsor reviewed by my own legal representative, and I signed it with Master Que, Mr Su, and Mr Dong’s trainee, Miss Yan, as my witnesses. Then we discussed the television station contract. Mr Su had qualms about some of their clauses, and those overlapped with Master Que’s concerns, so we agreed to propose some variations. Finally, Mr Su gave me an update on the progress of my house purchase and escorted us back out to reception where we said good bye.
After Mr Su had returned to his office, I checked with the receptionist whether my bills from the firm would be coming monthly or at the completion of each piece of work. My family had always spoken as if legal work was expensive, even if Master Que had the attitude that it would cost what it cost, so I wanted to be prepared for when I would have to pay for Mr Su’s work on my behalf. Having established that billing was monthly, Master Que and I caught the bus back to Xuexing and went grocery shopping.
We began at the grocer near the bus stop, Kong & Sons as the frontage proclaimed it, and stocked up on made-up pickles, pickling spices, picking jars, dried fish, tofu, and cleaning supplies. Next, we went to the vegetable shop, Qing Vegetables and Spices, next to the temple on Nan Song Road, and restocked with fruit and vegetables. Master Que suggested getting a taxi home before I did, and then we spent a ten minute trip with a garrulous, middle-aged man who kept complimenting Master Que on his granddaughter, between lamenting his two unmarried, unemployed sons.
We paid the driver and made our escape onto the pavement outside the house with some relief. As the taxi drove off, Master Que asked plaintively, “Do I really look like your grandfather?”
“You don’t look like either of my grandfathers,” I replied, “but perhaps he thought you started very young? Or that my parents did?”
Master Que sighed. “Good to know that you don’t think I look that old. Now, let’s put these things inside so we can go and find a butcher that sells more than sausages. Not that they were bad sausages,” he assured me, “but it was sausages all week.”
We went in search of the one of the butchers shops I’d been told about – this one was on the corner of Ya Bu Road and Zhong Tao Lane, which put it about two blocks over and three up from the house. The signage proclaimed the business to be Dao Dao, Family Butcher, and the display in the window looked promising while there several customers already inside being served. A quick survey of their offerings showed that they were a reasonably priced establishment that offered hogget, rather than lamb or mutton, rabbit, pork, goat, and beef that was too old to be described as yearling. My mother would love it.
We left with pork, goat, and beef already cut up for stir fry. The walk back to the house took us past an apothecary’s shop on Qi Ying Road with a charity poster that caught Master Que’s eye. The eye-catching image was of a rhinoceros, a large foreign mammal with a pair of horns on its nose, surrounded by a ring of orange and red flowers. The text explained that an animal protection society was raising money to fund a campaign to educate foreigners that there are homonyms in Tang-jian meaning ‘horn of rhinoceros’ and ‘rhinoceros horn flower’, and that it’s the flower that’s used in Tang-jian medicine. Apparently, there had been a rise in opportunistic offerings from foreigners to apothecary suppliers of the animal horns, and each set of horns represented a dead animal. The store was a collection point.
“I feel inclined to be charitable,” remarked Master Que, and he pushed open the apothecary’s door. A brass bell rang as the door moved, and I followed Master Que into a room of tall cabinets with labelled drawers, rich smells, and filtered light. A man of my father’s age emerged from the back room at the sound of the bell, and took his place behind counter. He bowed slightly and said, “Good morning, sir and miss. How may I help you?”
We returned his bow in kind, and Master Que said, “The poster in your window caught my eye, and I wish to make a donation.”
“Thank you.” The tall, wiry man smiled. “It is a problem that no-one in the profession wants to get worse. The wholesale price of rhinoceros horn flower is the same as saffron, and these foreigners think they’re going to get that money for animal parts. Customs have stopped at least three incoming shipments on the docks in the last four months, and one hears that the organisations who control the black-market traffic of goods are receiving increasing approaches. My second son was unfortunate enough to catalogue a Customs seizure last year, and he said the horns hadn’t been cleaned at all; there was still skin, and blood involved.”
“One wonders if there was any thought at all involved there, doesn’t one?” Master Que shook his head. “Mind you, I’ve run across a lot of people who don’t think beyond getting themselves paid, and everyone else can bear the risks of their behaviour. Now, that donation.” He put down the shopping he was carrying, pulled out his wallet, and pulled out some notes.
The man behind the counter pulled a cashbox out from under the counter, then opened it to take out a receipt book. He looked at the notes in Master Que’s hand and said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but I can’t break a hundred standard tael note for you.”
“I’m not expecting change,” replied Master Que amiably, “and I think you’ll find that there are two notes there.”
“That’s very generous of you,” said the apothecary as he took the notes and checked them.
“I have an income, and my outgoings are quite small at the moment,” said Master Que modestly. “The cause is good, and donating it saves me from spending the money on hard liquor or in mah jong dens.”
“We appreciate that you have chosen our cause to help you restrain your vices,” replied the apothecary gravely, but with the hint of a smile. “Please feel free to consult me professionally if you need help with results of hard liquor. Who should I make the receipt out to?”
“I am Que Tzu.” Master Que smiled amiably.
The apothecary filled out the receipt, handed it to Master Que, repositioned the piece of carbon paper behind the next receipt, then put the money and the receipt book into the cash box. “Please, both of you keep in mind that we are open for at least a few hours every day. My wife is a pharmacist, so if we can fill both types of medical prescription here.”
Master Que promised to keep the practice in mind of we became ill, and we departed with polite bows.
The rest of our walk home was unremarkable. We had lunch, and my afternoon was a mixture of gi, study, and cleaning. The gi and the cleaning may have been combined, simply because there was no other way to satisfactorily shift some of that dust. My experiment in using gi to manipulate wood polish was less successful, but as I spilt it on a section of wooden flooring, I took that as no harm done and wiped it up with the recommended circular application motions.
Master Que cleared his throat, and I looked up to find him standing at the edge of the carpet, looking at me over the edge of the teacup he was drinking from. He lowered the cup long enough to ask, “What happened? I felt that from the verandah of the eastern building.”
I sat back on my heels and confessed, “I tried to be clever, and it backfired. Now, I’m cleaning up the mess.”
“What went wrong?” The teacup in the way meant I couldn’t tell what Master Que thought of my misadventure.
“I had so much success removing dust with gi, that I thought I might be able to apply the wood polish more efficiently if I used gi.” I shrugged, “Turns out it doesn’t act like water, because it isn’t water. It might be possible, but the approach that I tried today wasn’t the right one, so now I’m cleaning up my mess.”
Master Que asked, “Aside from cleaning the house, what benefit would there be using gi to do the polishing?”
“Not the actual polishing,” I shook my head. “I use less energy polishing by hand than I’d use doing it with gi, but for applying the polish to the surface first, and getting it into some of those fine carvings. As to benefits for my gi, it would be fine accuracy practice and, as it turns out, practice manipulating mixed substances.”
My teacher nodded. “Fair enough. What specifically did you learn about the manipulation you were trying to do?”
“A suspension of wax in oil doesn’t act like dust suspended in water,” I told him. “The oil mixture, in particular, doesn’t act like water when you’re trying to channel it.” I thought back, and added, “When you grab the wax particles, you don’t just grab them, you grab some of the oil as well. They must have more affinity than dust and water. Or be more the same.”
I could see Master Que’s smile despite the tea cup. “I’ve never felt the need to investigate the properties of cleaning materials myself, but that sounds like a useful piece of information. You are unlikely to be attacked with household cleaners in the ring, but that doesn’t mean some Taozhu won’t come up a technique that makes it relevant. You may wish to continue gently prodding at the phenomena, although perhaps not today?”
I looked at the floor in front of me, and agreed, “Not today. May be a little further away from soft furnishings too.”
“A worthy thought,” he agreed and left me alone to get on with it.
Dinner was beef stir fry. Master Que prepared the vegetables, and I cooked it while he had a cigarette or two in the garden. After we cleaned up the kitchen, he cleaned himself up and went out for the evening. I stayed home and worked on my tutorial assignments, after which I started reading ahead in my philosophy textbook. I’m fairly certain that I went to bed before Master Que returned home.
In my dreams I had to sit an exam being moderated by various departed Lao scholars. To pass, no, just to be allowed to leave the room, I had to write a fourteen stanza poem of five lines per stanza on the purpose of learning. With calligraphy. In the dream, Eldest Scholar Lao kept ripping my unacceptable calligraphy to pieces.
I woke about one in the morning, used the bathroom, and then went downstairs to put a cup of tea in front of the family shrine. I bowed to it, put my hands together and said, “Please, I know my calligraphy is atrocious, but my ordinary writing is good enough. I do try, but please, my calligraphy is what it is – we can go on about it all night, but that isn’t going to make it any better.” I bowed again and went back to bed.
Being lost in the bookstacks of the Nientsien Pagoda was probably a better dream.
I still got out of bed early the next morning because my sleep wasn’t being precisely restful. I replaced the tea at the family shrine with the usual breakfast offering and went outside to do my gi practice.
Aside from a tricoloured cat who’d been surprised to find anyone in the garden at that hour of the morning, various birds, and a few butterflies, I didn’t see anyone else before eleven. That was when Master Que joined me on the verandah of the western building where I was revising my Geology and Geography notes. He had a cup of tea with him, and I may have detected notes of ginseng and rhubarb being carried with the steam.
He looked at what I was doing, commented, “Your diligence is applaudable, my student,” and then sat down.
“Good morning, sir.” I put down my pen and bowed without rising. “I thought I would get this out of the way, because you would likely have training for me this afternoon.”
“Possibly.” He drank some more tea. “I managed to get very drunk last night,” he observed.
“I didn’t observe that,” I said, my hands folded on my papers and my pen still on the table.
“You were sensibly asleep when I got home,” he drank some more tea.
“Either having my calligraphy criticised by Eldest Scholar Lao, or being lost in a library,” I told him.
“If your dreams keep being interrupted by the spirits of the dead, you may direct them to me as your teacher,” Master Que told me. “Does your calligraphy really bother you that much?”
“Not normally,” I picked up my pen again. “I know that I’ve learnt too many of my characters from typefaces for my writing to be elegant.”
“Let me know if your dreams of the Lao ancestors start being a problem for you,” remarked Master Que. “As we’ve discussed before, it is possible to see spirits with gi. What we didn’t discuss is that some of the spirits are ghosts. Eldest Scholar Lao may be offended by your calligraphy as much as he likes but succumbing to the seduction of a ghost can be a dangerous business. If the more recent generations of Lao scholars start taking an inappropriate interest in you, I will have to take steps.”
“It seems unlikely,” I offered. “I mean, the Lao are a scholarly family, while my father’s family were peasants. I’m completely unsuitable.”
“Except they were men of generations when you would have been considered a beauty,” pointed out Master Que. “And isn’t your mother’s family connected to the nobility somehow?”
I blushed. “Very tenuously. Elder Cousin Tang is kind enough to let us visit his azalea garden every year on the day before the public open day , when it’s just his family doing the viewing.”
“I remember you telling me about his tea house on the island,” commented Master Que. “You were very enthusiastic about it.”
“It’s a very nice tea house,” I replied, still blushing. “And Elder Cousin Tang was very gracious with a little girl’s enthusiasm.” I realised something, and added sadly, “I might not be able to go again, given how I left home. I suppose everything has mixed consequences.”
“Indeed,” said Master Que, “but nothing is fixed.”
This is now followed by Unexpected Afternoon Episodes.