The Curious Life and Time Of
Just inside our school there stand two black lions flanking the entrance. Every one of good character is moved by their courage and their compassion. These are the desks where Headmaster and Head Teacher had spent so many years and left just as they were when they left. First it was Father a day after seeing the six grandkids at his birthday party, then Mother, maybe a few minutes later, so happily of a broken heart. It’s said that, even during typhoons, none of their papers rustles.
As a young man, Father fell in love with the sea. He travelled in a sampan to Butte, Montana, USA, where he met Mother when she was working in a salmon hatchery. She had been vacationing during a regime change in China, and simply ran out of money to return home. Or maybe the currency was devalued. Either way, they sailed Pacific currents where Older Sister joined them, somewhere off the coast of Saipan. I came along some years before landfall on the Pearl River Delta, where we stayed until we left.
Almost every day we’d wade ashore, help with village chores then lunch then return to our home. Late afternoons would see a number of visitors visit us, always bringing just enough food to content everyone. In return Father would weave stories of history and magic whilst Mother would sketch something even more mysterious.
Soon a school was to be built, so Father and Mother contributed by crafting teak furniture from our boat until there was nothing left. We moved into the city where the villagers now lived, a few blocks from our school. Somehow all the villagers found work inside or outside—teaching or gardening or both.
The day of her final Spring field trip was the only time I saw Older Sister at school. It was just after her twentieth birthday. She was in a field. You see, we visited a field that day. So many younger students flocked to her. She’d begin a story and each kid would in turn add something until the story was complete. After a number of stories, they shared lunch boxes until time to board the school buses and return home.
Older Sister wasn’t really aware of herself until the day Max dropped in. Max left Brooklyn after some involvement with various rackets—or syndicates, as he preferred. He went underground—first as a subway maintenance-man then as a water-technician, both based in Manhattan. “From rackets to ratchets,” he sometimes used to say. Max reached Hong Kong in the mid-sixties, and immediately found a niche in the plumbing trade, servicing the many low- to mid-income housing projects that sprung up as the economy began to take flight. Ours is one of them.
The only absence Older Sister had during her school years happened in her Upper Sixth Form. Max was making his rounds in the concrete boxes of our building when she stepped from the shower to discover him arriving to check the pipes.
“EXCUSE ME. Can’t you see I’m …?”
“Lady, either that or you have the strangest taste in clothing.”
Max eventually began plying his trade in the Kowloon financial district, where he did quite well even though some people began to confuse him with Marx. Some traders were heard to say they were on the phone with Marx. Ripples or great waves on the financial markets ensued. Good old Max.
John and his siblings were expected to study earnestly and work diligently—then everything else would fall into place just like luck. His grandfather and his grandfather reasoned, “You learn the streets, the eddies of society, you learn a good business.”
As a teenager, John worked as a message runner in the financial districts, moving from one securities firm to another, securely relaying nuances from one executive to another. After college abroad, he deservedly joined the family business as a custodian to learn all the offices and the coworkers—their habits and their characters. In time John showed promise brokering deals between brokers and so earned an office position, always making certain to welcome new employees on their first day.
Older Sister never studied much but mastered the vocals of most current Janis Joplin songs. Instead of writing answers to her assignments, she’d draw something that incorporated something from each of the subjects. The family agreed that Older Sister should pursue a clerical career, which she began in a business soon after graduation. She was to live at home until she married.
As you know, all companies require 4 documents of new graduates: attendance records, marks and IQ test results—no exceptions. One Thursday morning our school clerk approached Father to let him know of a firm’s request, which delighted him since Older Sister was showing initiative. She also informed that IQ results were nowhere to be seen so Father stepped next door to ask Mother. She shrugged and asked the same to Father, who shrugged. Older Sister had been absent the day her Form tested so she would have to report to the Education Ministry and undergo the ordeal—this time escorted by Father and Mother. They remained perched in their seats until the administrator returned and announced that, with scores ranging over 170, they couldn’t be accurately pinpointed. Father and Mother refused to believe this, had her sit for another, then surrendered when the same results were announced.
“Because, if you had known, you’d have made me study even more.”
John and Older Sister met, fell in love, married and raised 3 beautiful children by early afternoon. It’s just as well—in late afternoon near tea time, 2 raven-haired lawyers—one in red qipao, one in gold aodai—and their stenographer landed in the corporate conference room for the final meeting to complete the hostile takeover. Older Sister was asked to take notes, which she did using brush and ink.
After reading over their documents, she asked the kill team, “Just one question: ‘How did you?’”
Now the qipao and aodai were on the floor, and the two phoned in resignations, agreeing to work with Lark Securities in any capacity available to them. You can still see both pushing tea carts through the corridors of the building or fetching boxed lunches from the corner restaurant.
The corner restaurant isn’t a restaurant, though. Mr and Mrs Lim had closed it years before. They would usher lost patrons through the maze of dining room tables, past the kitchen, through the pantry to the lane behind, where Son and Daughter-in-Law have their own. This way they could have tea and share the newspaper, reading together one page at a time, squabble about reported events—how one was more confused than the other—until they left to bring the grandkids back from school. One Sunday morning one of the grandkids noticed Grandfather was reading from left to right and Grandmother from right to left. They decided to reopen the restaurant.
With the wedding dinner approaching, the elderly couple happily wrote John and Older Sister:
“For the wedding party, we’ll prepare a meal somewhere between feast and famine, and neither fish nor fowl, but both! First we offer Celestial Roasted Albino Duck. As you will see, each has only one wing so that it flies in circles to Heaven then back to Earth. Next a seasonal favorite of the Emperors: steamed Manchurian whitefish in freshest ice and snow. Finally a dessert of Pearl River Pearl—to remain a secret to some until wedding day.”
John left it up to Older Sister, who left it up to the parents and grandparents, who left it up to the siblings.
During dessert, Mother-in-Law uncovered her bowl to remove and string a pearl on a gold thread, and such was continued by everyone around the table until it reached Mother-in-Law, who knotted the thread securely and handed the necklace to John, who placed the family’s gift around Older Sister’s neck. John and Older Sister spent their honeymoon watching the moon rise as they walked to their new home.
It’s said that the Northwest wind arrives carrying good and bad fortunes so we learn: Wait to see how things change. Three of Father’s and Mother’s former students dropped in on us one evening bearing delicious snacks and sad tidings. There was talk in the Education Ministry that a certain Madame Xi was appointed by the Northern government to investigate the credentials of every Hong Kong administrator and teacher. The Pekinese had fished around and detected that files containing Headmaster’s and Head Teacher’s diplomas and certificates were missing.
“Simple enough, dear students, we don’t have any. We began as gardeners and remain so today. Our salary receipts demonstrate such. As you know, we ask each student on the final day to write just one statement—the most valuable lesson they’ve learnt that year. We summon each one, one by one, and ask whether they will always live according to that lesson. They nod then they pass. Simple as that.”
Mother kept knitting, though her position moved from the sofa to a corner where ceiling and walls joined. She stayed there knitting away, spinning a most exquisite web of revenge. Tomorrow morning, the city would know of it, and everyone would gladly participate.
Madame Xi had the habit of stamping her tiny feet and waving her pudgy fist then almost yelping when flustered. You could see this about to happen when she marched into Headmaster’s office and demanded to interrogate the Head Master, who wasn’t in his office. She stormed into Head Teacher’s office, where Mother sat chatting with a gentleman of about the same age.
“Where is this Headmaster? I want to see him right now.”
“Simply take the stairwell to the 3rd level, walk down the East wing, then one flight down, past the library, one more flight down.”
The inquisitive visitor did so, and so arrived again at Head Teacher’s office, where the couple looked up and offered so many different sets of directions, all with the same result.
“You haven’t seen the last of me.”
An exhausted Madame Xi returned to the boarding house to phone the Northern government. Before trying the key, her room door was opened by a well-attired mockingbird couple holding their nestlings.
“So good of you to drop in … you see, we’re feeling a bit peckish.”
All the landlords and merchants would, one and all, shoe Madame Xi away with a sweep of the wing—no one would lease or sell anything to her. Sometime later, what remained of her was whisked away by the wind to Hong Kong Bay, where she was gobbled up by a vacationing salmon. Poor old Madame Xi.
Do you remember those lions? Hong Kong attended their funeral, as did the Mayor of Butte, the Governor of Saipan and a representative of the Northern government amongst so many others from far away. The school day following, the new Headmaster and Head Teacher quietly announced that Dad and Mom wanted everyone to enjoy their lunches outdoors today and to forget about anything troubling anyone, whatever it might be. A few hours after we all finished eating, a windless, light rain began to fall and moved everyone slowly indoors. It seems Celestial Heaven hadn’t heard the announcement.