I woke up with the taste of very good candied peaches on my mind if not actually in my mouth. There were no raised voices from the He household this morning and I went downstairs to find the three Dees having breakfast together. I said good morning to them, then went to make the daily offerings to the Lao family shrine. Generations of past scholars seemed particularly benevolent this morning, even the ones I was fairly certain had been machine pistol toting resistance fighters.
Back in the kitchen Smallest Dee was saying, “And then we had tea with Master Ran. She has a cat who likes giving head rubs.”
His mother asked, sounding amused, “Are you sure everyone you visited with Master Que is a Master?”
“He was asking questions about people Miss Sung might be fighting in a tournament at the end of the month,” replied Smallest Dee seriously, “so yesterday they were. Master Ran thinks Miss Sung will do very well in the tournament.” He recommenced eating.
“Going around listening to grownups talking to each other doesn’t sound like much fun to me,” commented Dee Zhi, Smallest Dee’s oldest brother. “You might as well be in school.” He looked sideways at his mother.
“Master Que says that I’m learning how to meet new people and how to listen,” said Smallest Dee. “The hardest part, he says, is when people don’t use all their words. Or any words at all and you still need to know what they’re not telling.”
As I crossed the room to help myself to rice and pickles, Madam Dee was saying, “It is, and it doesn’t necessarily get easier as you get older. Sometimes at work I look after people who can’t speak for one reason or another and that can be difficult for both of us.”
“But it’s not something that you have school lessons in,” pointed out Dee Zhi. “I mean, it’s talking to people. At school you get into trouble for talking to people while the teacher is talking.”
“That’s several lessons in itself,” replied his mother. “Learning how to listen to instructions and take in information. The hospital spends a lot of money every year sending people for lessons reminding them how to do those things properly. Then they send them for lessons on how to talk to people properly. We think that those are easy things to do, but sometimes they’re not.”
Dee Zhi looked like he didn’t believe her. Smallest Dee and I applied ourselves to our respective breakfasts.
“Some people,” went on Madam Dee, “go on courses to learn how to be better at getting people to listen to them when they teach a class.
Dee Zhi continued to look sceptical.
Smallest Dee finished his food and asked if he should take a cup of tea to his grandmother in their room. While his mother was still looking slightly surprised, I got down one of the large teacups we were using because we had house guests and a plate suitable to use as a tray. As I poured the tea until it was half a finger joint below the edge of the cup I asked, “Do you think Madam Hua would like her breakfast with this, or would she rather come here and get it herself after she’s had her tea?”
Smallest Dee considered for a moment and then said, “She doesn’t like people eating in bed, even when they’re sick, so I think she’d rather come and get it herself.”
I carefully presented him with the teacup-laden plate and went to hold the outer door open for him as Smallest Dee set off on his delivery task.
When he was gone and I went back into the kitchen, his mother commented, “He’s right, my mother would take having a meal in bed as a sign of personal weakness but she will allow herself to be given a cup of tea, first thing in the morning. I’m a little surprised that Yue offered to take her one – neither of us have even suggested that he carry a hot liquid over that sort of distance before.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Master Que and the other masters have been encouraging him to see himself as competent,” I replied as I poured myself some more tea. “Gi teaching and practice does encourage a certain belief in your own physical skills. I remember being tasked to carry a plate with drinks on it to practice my balance and balancing skills.”
“Yue was very unwell when he was little,” confided his mother. “It has put him behind other children his age.”
“He hasn’t been sick for ages,” added Dee Zhi in a put-upon tone, “but everyone treats him like he’s still a baby, and he always gets tired in the middle of things.”
“He wants to do the things you’re doing,” replied his mother calmly, “because you’re doing them, and he wants to be like you. Also, a lot of the things you do are good things to be doing at your age. He was always going to get tired faster than you because he is younger, it’s just that he gets tired faster than normal.”
“I’m glad you do let him play and do stuff with you,” I added. “I was too young for my older sisters, our brothers about my age didn’t want me joining in with them, and everyone said I was too big to bother the littler ones. It was very lonely sometimes. I remember spending a lot of time with my stuffed…toy. I mean, he’s bipedal but not really a doll or a bear….” I smiled apologetically.
Dee Zhi looked confused about how he was supposed to respond to that, not that I blamed him one little bit, but then Smallest Dee returned and announced, “Grandmother will be along for breakfast after she’s gotten dressed and finished her tea. May I go and play in the garden, please?”
I excused myself at that point and went upstairs to get some of my readings to keep me occupied until Master Que emerged from his room to face the morning. I was on the verandah of the ground floor of the east house and halfway through an assigned chapter of Physical Geography and Geosystems by Sheng and Bei when Master Que joined me with his breakfast and tea. “You’re very diligent,” he observed.
“I’m going to have to be to fit everything in.” I carefully marked my place and asked, “What are we going to do about grocery shopping this week?”
“I may have already dealt with it yesterday,” remarked Master Que in a slightly shifty tone. “With Smallest Dee’s assistance. I know that this is your household and you are supposed to be supporting it, but that arrangement never envisioned feeding an extra sixteen people for any length of time. My resources are more extensive than yours, I am living here too, and I was the one who invited a lot of our guests to stay, so I decided to take care of the groceries until it’s just the two of us again. I expect I will be shopping every couple of days.” He sipped his tea and gave me a grin, “The rent and utilities are still your problem.”
“Of course they are.” I smiled back. “Do I have any professional obligations today or tomorrow?”
“Nothing until dinner at The Riverside Terrace,” he told me. “Your agent tells me that we’re still waiting on the television station to get back to us about the suggested contract revisions and that he may have a potential sponsor for you to meet with, perhaps on the fourth day of next week. I believe we may have more furniture being removed tomorrow. I hope they’re not planning to take any of the beds that we’re using for the visitors. What are your plans?”
“Study and gi practice. I’ll have to spend some time at the library, possibly this afternoon.” I indicated my textbook and said, “Some of the things I need to read aren’t allowed to leave the there.”
“I believe we should send young Hen home with several filled lunch boxes so that he doesn’t have to organise food, laundry, cleaning, and his university work all at once,” remarked Master Que after drinking a little tea. “I suspect that there will be more dust than usual after this week’s events. Dealing with it might be the work of a few minutes for you, or me if I put my mind to it, but when dust has been shaken out of all the cracks by an impact the effect is likely to be more than most people are used to in a domestic situation.”
I asked, “Do we have food cooked up and ready to send home with Hen Xiao?”
“There are pickles and soya chicken in the refrigerator, one of the rice cookers is on, and there are some leftovers from last night. I believe we can send him away fortified against the world for at least a day,” replied Master Que.
“Have you heard how the firefighter is doing?” I tossed that into the conversation because I’d just remembered him again and this wasn’t an inconvenient time, like ten o’clock at night or while I was under the shower.
“The Chiangshi masters are keeping an eye on him,” replied Master Que. “Understandably, they are quite proud of him, and a little concerned. He’s past the age where overreaching one’s current strength can be a ‘useful’ development trigger, generally speaking.” He drank some more tea and added, “His achievement was striking for the amount of power he used, the control he exhibited, and, I believe, his technique. Impromptu, large scale, and none of us are clear at this point whether he was using a dynamic or a static technique. Interesting.” He drank some more tea. “I thought we might start your practice in about twenty minutes. Will you be able to put aside your study then?”
“Yes, sir.” I reopened my book and checked how many pages of the chapter were left. “I should be able to finish this in that time.”
So, I went from reading about water and geography, the assigned chapter was just one of an entire section of the book on water, to practicing methods of counteracting Taozhu tournament strategies. No-one should try to suggest that Master Que lacks a sense of humour.
We finished the session when Hen Xiao came to make his farewells. Master Que and I took him back to the kitchen and made him take three lunch boxes of food with him, and then we started preparing lunch for the rest of us. Master Que has a dazzling array of kitchen knife skills and we had stir-fried vegetables and soya chicken over rice for our meal.
After lunch I made good on my plans to go to the library. It was a warm walk to get there and I was very happy to sit down at a reading desk in an air-conditioned room with the restricted lending readings. The desk was about half full, and I nodded companionably at Wang Guai, surrounded by Literature and Statistics books, as I sat down. Ji Wei, the harassed young man studying the Fu period tea trade I’d observed during an earlier visit, was also at there. Interestingly, one of his harassers, the tall girl with a long single braid, was there too but at the opposite end of the table. I had a vague idea that she should still be on restrictions from that earlier incident, but the clear slap bruise on the cheek facing me suggested that there might be reasons for that and despite her behaviour the last time I’d seen her, she seemed to be working hard.
I swapped my reading materials twice and made notes furiously. By the time I was done I had drafted a tutorial response and sketched out almost all of the others. Some serious writing hours at home in the evenings and I would be ready for the new week. I was happily satisfied with myself when I gathered up my books to return the last of the borrowed materials and go home. Wang Guai had already gone, from my point of view he’d disappeared while I was making notes from my philosophy tutorial question, but more people arrived as I was leaving, and I wondered idly if they’d all gotten off the same bus.
I wasn’t paying any of the newcomers any particular attention as I queued to return the readings, then one of them in the borrowing line asked, “So, is the gi prodigy still planning to move over to the professional leagues?”
The person being spoken to, a girl with her hair in dumpling buns and carrying a car company branded backpack, sighed and replied, “My esteemed elder brother is entering the Student Professional Tournament at the end of this month as his professional debut. We have tickets already. Apparently, I am to be support staff.” She added, “Perhaps I’ll get lucky and have too much schoolwork on to go.”
“Would the gi prodigy notice?” Her friend was a girl with the severest bowl-cut I’d ever seen on a member of our mutual gender. She managed to make it look smart.
“Only if he was personally inconvenience by not having drinks or towels on hand the instant that he wanted them,” replied the girl with dumpling buns. “I mean, we all want him to be successful, but would it hurt him to notice that other people have separate things going on in their own lives that are important to them?”
“But then he would have to acknowledge that he might not be the centre of your universe,” replied the other girl. “Has he ever demonstrated that he might have as much regard for someone else as he does for himself?”
“Gai Bi is my elder brother,” was the reply. “It’s easier if I don’t think about things like that. I think Master Shui tries to expand his world view, but I don’t think he’s had much success.”
I finished my business at that point and left but made a note of the names so that Master Que could add Gai Bi to my list of possible opponents in the tournament at the month’s end.
It was warm walking home again in the afternoon sun and I went straight to the kitchen to get myself a cool drink when I arrived. Things were in the refrigerator that hadn’t been there when I’d gone out, marinating in dishes of fragrant brown, red and orange liquids. There were bowls of chopped up vegetables too and, although most of them looked like Master Que’s work some looked like they were done by a much less practiced hand. I finished my drink, took my books upstairs to my room, and then went down to the practice room to run through my forms on my own.
I was still working through the shadow dodge iterations when Han Er and Lin Wu came to find me. Possibly they had been there for a while, but I didn’t notice them until I pivoted through the final movements of iteration five. “I’m sorry,” I bowed to them, “have you been there long?”
“Since you did that thing where you sort of pivoted over something that wasn’t there and acted like it was supporting your hand,” offered Han Er. “I mean, I watch gi tournaments on television sometimes, but I didn’t realise that was a thing people could actually do in real life.” Lin Wu looked slightly embarrassed.
I looked at her and said, “Gi tournaments are real life.”
“But special effects and things!” She looked confused. “Besides, when I did gi, we never did stuff like that.”
“Special effects can imitate the things that gi can do,” I agreed. Then I asked, “Did you keep it up until you were in your teens or did you move on to other things before that? Most people can’t manipulate energy until they’re in their teens.”
“I only did it for a year,” admitted Han Er, “then I started academic tutoring, baseball, and playing the five-stringed pipa. My parents decided that I didn’t have time for gi too. To be fair, I probably didn’t.” She added, “They were very determined that I become a well-rounded adult.”
“A commendable desire,” I agreed solemnly in the style of Master Que, “but busy for you. Anyway, why did you want me?”
“We were wondering if we could borrow your Geography and Geology textbooks so we could get the reading done for next week’s lectures.”
“Of course,” I agreed. “Let’s go and get them now.”
I led them up to my room and handed over the books in question, asking that I have them back by the following evening. I didn’t invite the girls into my room, partly because I wasn’t used to having other people I the room I actually lived in and partly because a lot of my things, like bedding and books, were in neat piles on the floor and it was all a bit awkward.
Standing in the doorway, Lin Wu asked, “But don’t you have a bed?”
I looked up from removing a stack of notes from on top of the Geology text and said, “This is all temporary. The owners are working out who gets what from the late Professor Lao’s estate and they decided they didn’t want me making free with the furniture before they removed it. When the place is less…fully furnished I’ll pick a permanent bedroom and make more permanent arrangements. In the meantime, I have a very comfortable bed nest.”
“But we have beds,” said Lin Wu uncomfortably.
“You are guests in need,” I replied calmly. “Joint guests of the Lao family and myself. Of course you have beds. Besides, I’m in the process of buying the house – hopefully the question soon will not be whether I have a bed, but how big and, maybe, what style.”
“Short term pain, then?” commented Han Er cheerfully.
“That’s the plan,” I grinned at them both.
This is now followed by The Second Day of the Weekend.