After we’d cleaned up the kitchen and before I started my assignments and revision, I offered Lin Wu and Han Er the use of my festival robes. Lin Wu had spent the day in her night attire and Han Er’s clothing situation seemed only slightly less dire. I would have offered them some of my shirts and blacks, but our different sizes and body shapes just weren’t going to let that work. That done, I retreated to my room on the top floor and set to getting my schoolwork done.
I woke in the morning to the sound of my alarm and Madam He admonishing He Ban for not yet being up and about. I couldn’t hear the words, but this was the first morning that I’d heard He Ban say anything back to his mother. Whatever it was, it seemed to produce a miffed silence from Madam He and I heard nothing else from her before I went downstairs for breakfast. The kitchen seemed quite crowded.
Master Que was there, as were Xiang An, Li Zhen, all three seven-year-old boys, Madam Hua and Madam Yang. I took the daily offering to the Lao family shrine and then got myself a bowl of rice and pickles with a cup of tea for my breakfast. A little conversation revealed that the boys were getting ready for school already, apparently morning assembly was at eight thirty, so they needed to eat and get ready to walk there. Xiang An was running a Second Year tutorial in Physical Geography at eight and Li Zhen had an elective lecture at the same time. I was interested to learn that he was studying one of the Xanji languages, Jul’hoan. Li Zhen, for his part, was happy to explain how it fit into his plans to study the geology of the great mountain range that ran the length, north to south, of the Zanji continent.
As I was finishing my breakfast and getting ready to leave, Dee Yue arrived. I then excused myself so I could get to my Literature tutorial on time. As I left, the rest of my student guests arrived looking for food and Master Que was assuring Dee Yue that they could start characters and gi forms as soon as breakfast was over.
Xiang An, Li Zhen and I walked to the university together. Bai Cun Road was still closed off, The Lotus Pond was serving breakfast again, and there was still smoke rising from the site of the fire. However, people seemed to be adapting because the neither the pedestrian and nor the road traffic were as bad as they had been the day before. We separated to go to our different classes once we were inside the university gates, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself early for my tutorial.
Scholar Tao Zhung’s fan of the day was painted with dancing cranes, and we spent the lesson going over the style elements of our first writing piece, questions from the lecture, and from the readings. When it came time to hand in our due assignments, a boy called Xin Qian who was doing Classical Studies and Physical Sciences, bowed apologetically and said that his completed assignment was in his flat, which was currently unaccessible.
Scholar Tao closed his fan with a snap and said, “You have been evacuated because of the fire and explosions?”
Xin Qian nodded, “Yes, Scholar Tao.”
“I see. I, of course, will confirm your address with the university administration staff but under the circumstances, I will accept the work as being handed in on time if you present it at our next scheduled tutorial. If you still have no access to your domicile by then, I am afraid that you will need to redo the work.” He opened his fan again and waved it gently. “I assume that you spent last night in temporary accommodation, or possibly trying to find something, so it would be unreasonable to expect you to have made all the necessary adjustments in the short time available to you. However, I cannot grant you an indefinite extension, even under the circumstances.”
“Thank you,” Xin Qian bowed. “I am grateful for the extra time to get the work in, sir.”
Once the class was finished, it was time for the mad dash to my Arts tutorial in the building next door. Scholar Huai Huai counted us in again and began by collecting our assignments. Then we looked at artworks from the period of Chan Dynasty, founded by Chan Zhu. From our point of view, it seemed odd that they didn’t track down the new reincarnation of the Solar Emperor on Chan Zhu’s death, but of course back then he didn’t have the status that he has now. The third king of the dynasty, Chan Yao, was a noted calligrapher in his day and the surviving pieces of his work certainly show that was because of his skill and not because people were trying to flatter him because he was king. Our assignment for the week was to pick a short piece, of any period, that Chan Yao could have worked with if it had been written in his period and write it in his style.
Ying Li asked whether we should substitute archaic characters for modern ones, as appropriate. Scholar Huai replied that we could, but that we should be certain that it was appropriate.
A boy named La Zha asked whether we could use modern pens or whether brushes were required. Our tutor looked at him for a moment and then replied, “A good question. As I was about to say, this will be the first of the calligraphy pieces that you will be doing. One of the things that we will explore is the difference that tools and materials make to the finished piece. On this occasion, focus on the shape and spacing of the characters. Chan Yao was known for working with both a brush and a reed dip pen, sometimes in the same piece. Worry about the clarity of your characters and the negative space but use the tools that you have on hand and remember that he was writing, not painting.” She looked around the room. “Any more questions?”
There weren’t, but I was quailing inside – my calligraphy was dreadful and writing in imitation of Chan Yao’s precise and beautifully spaced script seemed beyond my capabilities.
After we were dismissed, I returned several books at the library and went home.
When I reached the house there was a complete absence of seven-year-old boys. Master Que was supervising Dee Yue while he wrote a simple, one stroke character on the the paving stones of the courtyard in white chalk. His grandmother was watching from a set of table and chairs on the nearest veranda which she was sharing with a younger woman who was still older than myself. The younger woman was eating pickles and rice, so I suspected that she was Madam Dee Lu, awake after a night or late evening work shift and eating her breakfast.
I made my way over to the ladies and introduced myself to the younger lady, who was indeed Madam Dee. Master Que looked over at me from where he was working with Dee Yue and I waved. He nodded and went back to explaining the order in which to write the strokes of any character, and then promptly promised that they would start with simple ones and work up to the ones that required multiple rules. Having had a rest, Smallest Dee went back to practising his character on the tiles.
“Master Que is very patient with him,” observed Madam Dee. “It is very kind of him, considering that having us all here must be a great imposition on you both.”
“I remember Master Que being very patient with me when I started lessons with him when I was, maybe, a year older than your son is now,” I replied. “Despite his occasional best efforts to convince the world otherwise, I believe him to be a man of good and sound character.”
Madam Hua nodded. “He looked like a real villain when he turned up at the barricades yesterday just after the explosion. If he was here when it happened, I really don’t know how he got there so fast. Master Cheng and Master Deng who have the most local gi schools were there almost as fast, but they came in taxis.”
I looked at Master Que working with our smallest guest and remarked neutrally, “I could make some educated guesses on how he did it, but I have seen him do some amazing things. What did he and the other masters do when they got there?”
“They converged on one of the firefighters,” replied Madam Dee. “I didn’t even see how Master Que and Master Cheng got through the barrier – Master Deng vaulted it; I did see that. The poor man collapsed. Master Que caught him on his way down and then Master Cheng got a pillow under his head. I didn’t see where the pillow came from.”
Madam Hua took up the story again, “And then they managed to rouse him, the collapsed firefighter I mean, and Master Deng gave him something that he stuck in his mouth. When the first aid person from the firefighters got to them, Master Cheng told them very firmly that the man on the ground had ‘exhausted all his energies so they need replenishing’ and they should get him to a hospital. The first aid person tried to get them to stand back so he could look at the collapsed firefighter.”
Madam Dee chortled, “Then Master Deng, sounding just like a ward charge nurse dealing with a very junior doctor, said, ‘He’s used up all his glucose and glycogen. He needs at least energy support while his body accesses his fat stores.’ And then your Master Que adds, ‘His electrolytes are probably out of balance as well; a cardiologist should see him very soon.’” She added, “In nurse speak that translates as, ‘get him that referral now, you’re out of your depth kid.’”
“I still don’t know why they were there,” added Madam Hua.
“I felt a gi surge yesterday just before I heard the explosion,” I said. “Perhaps that was why they went there, to find out what was going on or because they knew that whoever did it would be in trouble. Did you see the explosion? What did it do?”
“We were probably far too close,” admitted Madam Hua. “I saw the air shimmer towards us, and then the shimmer all went upwards. Most of the dust did the same thing, in our direction.”
Madam Dee finished of her rice and added, “Now I think about it, it wasn’t even. I mean, a blast comes out from a central point, and it did that, but the going upwards part wasn’t even – it was an irregular shape.”
“Perhaps that’s what the gi I felt was doing,” I offered. “Redirecting the force and debris of an explosion on the fly sounds difficult. I’m not surprised if the person who did it ran to the end of themselves to achieve it.”
Madam Hua nodded in acknowledgement and then said, “After that we were moved back, further from the fire to where we couldn’t see what was happening to our apartment. Then they told us that we wouldn’t be able to go home for several days and opened an emergency accommodation register office right there under a tarpaulin. Your Master Que was there almost as soon as the ambulance with the firefighter left for the hospital, and it was quite funny there for a few minutes while he got the poor man at the table to understand that he was offering accommodation, not needing it.”
“Several of our neighbours declined Master Que’s offer,” added Madam Dee. “The Wens and the Xiaos were uncomfortable with his appearance, and the Pangs were going to accept but her mother and younger sister turned up and insisted that they go and stay with them.” She sighed and went on, “Of course, quickly thrown together temporary arrangements are never going to be completely satisfactory, no matter how grateful one is for the help one has received.”
I didn’t quite know how to respond to that, so I asked, “Has Master Que had a chance to ask you whether your room suits your work needs, Madam Dee? He thought that because you would be coming and going with shift work you might need a different room or two rooms.”
Madam Dee blushed. “Our apartment is very small. We’re sharing the kitchen and bathrooms here, but the bedroom you’ve put us in is almost bigger than our living area. We really can’t complain, and I didn’t mean to sound as if I was.”
“I took it as a statement of fact, not a complaint,” I assured her. “I mean, you were turned out of your homes in the middle of the night without most of your own things. Of course your current arrangements aren’t ideal. Now, if you’ll excuse me, ladies, I need to get some study done, and some gi practice.” I bowed and went on my way.
I went through my readings, made notes and planned out my unstarted assignments. I thought that I would use one of Lady Wen Cho’s poems for the calligraphy assignment, and then I realised that I didn’t have any of her poetry. I resolved to check through Notes to see if a verse or two had slipped into her correspondence that I hadn’t read yet and went to get lunch.
Smallest Dee had helped Master Que prepare the meal, which was hot rice, sharp-flavoured fresh greens, and traditional cookshop soy chicken. The older ladies were pleased to compliment Smallest Dee on his contribution, which had involved pulling leaves off stalks and then washing them while making sure that the stalks really had been set aside. In return Smallest Dee regaled us all with the tale of his grocery shopping expedition with Master Que. They had gone to Qing Vegetables and Spices, where Smallest Dee had received a piece of plum candy from the shopkeeper, and then they’d gone to the cooked meats shop on the corner of Hu Zhu Road and Da Jing Lane to buy the soy chicken. Given that Hu Zhu Road was the opposite end of our block to Kung Tao Street and Da Jing Street and Lane were beyond the Nan Song Road and Lane pair, I wasn’t surprised that Smallest Dee was ready for a nap when we finished lunch. Master Que promised him that they would go over the receipts together and do some gi exercises after he woke up and the little boy went off happily enough to lie down.
I did my gi practise under Master Que’s watchful gaze for over an hour until Smallest Dee joined us in the practise room, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He and I practised the first form together, and I realised that for the senior students in this position, it was an exercise in restraint and self control. A lot of my practise was aimed at honing my forms to let loose as much damage as possible on my opponent as quickly as possible. In contrast, my practise with Smallest Dee was aimed at performing the form in unison with him which meant reining my speed, being precise in my movements, and being careful about how much energy I pushed into things. I learned greater appreciation of Master Que’s adult students who’d done the same thing with me when I was a child, and I was absurdly pleased that although I was corrected several times for being sloppy I did not require as much help as Smallest Dee to a correct form.
To be clear, Smallest Dee had the problems of someone who had never done this before and whose body was nowhere near full growth. My problems were those of over confidence and familiarity. Master Que corrected us both gently and I think that seeing me corrected while doing the same exercise as he was gave Smallest Dee confidence in his abilities.
When Master Que had judged that Smallest Dee had done enough gi work for his first day, he called a break and the two of them sat down to go over the receipts from their earlier shopping. I took the opportunity to flip through Notes, looking for examples of the author’s verse that might have slipped into her correspondence. I was not particularly successful because although I did find a four-line verse, she made it clear to her correspondent that she was quoting, and I was fairly certain that it was not her own work. I marked the place with a bookmark in case I found nothing else that I liked better.
Master Que and I resumed my gi practise when the older boys came back from school and Smallest Dee went to join them for an afternoon snack. I followed that with a shower and a change of clothes while Master Que saw to dinner, assisted by older ladies who wanted something to do. Madam Dee had gone to her work shift and our other guests had returned to the house by the time I presented myself to the kitchen, and promptly got assigned to setting the table with the boys. The meal was a selection of cook shop meats, rice, sauces, and stir-fried vegetables. After I finished eating, I went to help clean up the kitchen, but Master Que told me to go out for the evening.
He specifically mentioned The Blackman’s Redoubt and told me that he expected me to be gone for at least three hours. He also told me that I was to have fun and make friends. I went, to the sound of Cousin Tang’s laughter and Dong Wei plaintively asking how old you had to be before grown ups stopped telling you what to do.
This is now followed by New Friends and Acquaintances.