Chapter 19

Mah Jong Night

The four girls were all together in their dormitory after a day’s efforts in the classroom. Collette and Daphne were quizzing each other on the day’s topics. Fara was lounging on her bed, scruffy in jeans and a tee shirt, reading a magazine and still feeling embarrassed about her mistake. Anna had been showering and now stood, wrapped in a towel, trying to dry her long hair in front of a mirror.

Liu Wei disturbed the group. “Madame Chao says we have special party tonight,” she announced. “Celebrate your first month here.” She didn’t look like she was looking forward to it.

Collette, Daphne and Anna were all enthused by the prospect. Even Fara thought it might take her mind off her stupid error.

“Yes. Madame Chao arrange good meal, then all go play Mah Jong.”

Although the meal sounded fine, neither Fara nor any of the others thought the game sounded like much fun. Fara, still upset by the slave escape and not wanting yet another reason to look stupid, tried to excuse herself saying she had no idea of how to play the game. Liu Wei brushed her protests aside and insisted that they should all put on their white qipaos and follow her. “Even you, Miss Careless,” Liu Wei added, looking at Fara

They left the Sunrise Tea Parlour. Although it was warm, Fara felt a little embarrassed to be wearing the thin silk dress out in the street. The short walk to the restaurant was all it took, though, to give her the very agreeable sensation of drawing the envious attention of other women and the cowed, covert glances of the few men that they passed.

The street was like many in London, segregated so that women would not have to share the same pavement with unaccompanied men. On Oxford Street or Regent Street, a woman could walk freely, knowing that the only men she would encounter would be under some woman’s control. Here, though, in Gerard Street, as so many in the capital, one side of the road was given over so that unaccompanied males could still move around. As she stepped confidently along the road, she suddenly understood some of what had been said about the Path of the Look. She caught sight of one man bowing his head as she swept past him, the slit silk of her dress swinging to expose her thighs and the tightly fitting fabric stretching across her belly and breasts. She smiled.

Tsai Linn saw her as she walked up to join the group. “See, Miss Fara, you have the power to control them without a word. Most impressive!” It made Fara feel a little better, even if she was still fretting over how she could have failed to fasten the padlock.

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Dinner had been organised at Lee Ho Fook’s restaurant. One table had been set for the group: Liu Wei, Tsai Linn and Madame Chao sitting on a long couch and the four girls, next to one another, on chairs opposite. With all her guests seated, Madam Chao clapped her hands to get things under way and four uniformed waiters scuttled in obediently carrying dishes of food, bottles of rice wine and TsingTao beer.

The girls all enjoyed Chinese food and the sit-down restaurant meal was a pleasant contrast to the snatched lunches of sandwiches between training sessions that they had been used to since their training started. Tsai Linn explained some of the less familiar dishes and there was plenty for everyone to enjoy. Liu Wei, piling food on her plate enthusiastically, showed just how she had achieved her more than ample figure.

Liu Wei reached forward greedily for the bowl of pork balls. As she did so, she knocked her handbag from the couch, sending its contents spilling across the floor. Colette went to help. “Don’t worry!” Liu Wei lunged towards the small pile of things.

“No trouble,” said Colette as she retrieved a lipstick and powder compact that had fallen out. But then there was something else. “Hang on,” she said. “What’s this?”

She held up a small brass key with its orange plastic fob. On it was written “Cage #3”.

“Wasn’t this the cage that was found open? The one Fara is supposed to have left unlocked? What’s it doing here?”

“How would I know? Maybe she put in my bag to make it look as though I let slave out. Here, give it to me.”

Madam Chao sat quietly through the exchange and then spoke. “I don’t think so. The girls don’t have access to the keys. They are returned to the key cupboard when the males are let out in the morning. All Fara needed to do was fasten the padlock shut. Nobody has suggested she needed a key. I wonder why the key would be in your bag, Liu Wei, unless you had used it to open a cage.”

“One of the males, then. They are devious. Stole key, used it to escape, and then placed in bag to make me look foolish.”

“You would be foolish indeed to believe that. Slave escapes, then comes back to plant key? Not likely! Other slave steals key but only one slave escapes? Not likely. No. Please leave us. You and I will talk again in the morning but I do not wish to share my dinner with a foolish person.” Madame Chao folded her arms and looked directly at Liu Wei.

Liu Wei scowled at the others around the table and grabbed her bag. Without saying anything, she turned on her heel and headed for the door.

“Well,” Madam Chao said, watching her go, “we can continue with our meal. So, Miss Fara, how are you looking forward to your test for Yellow Qipao?”

“But I thought…” Fara looked at Tsai Linn who had told her that it would have to be postponed.

“I think it can go ahead now,” she said. “I will speak to Mary Tang and see when it can be.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Fara responded while her three companions all applauded, happy that one of their group was ready to take the first step up.

A short time later, the party moved on to an upstairs room where the girls were to be introduced to the delights of Mah Jong.

The room was smoky. There were six circular, tables. Five were occupied with four women sitting around them, intent on their games. “Sit, ladies,” Madam Chao commanded, gesturing to the one empty table in the room.

As the girls took their places, Madam Chao called for jasmine tea. In the centre of the table, a box covered and lined with red velvet held the bamboo and ivory tiles used to play the game. With over a hundred tiles bearing a strange array of unfamiliar symbols, the girls felt more than a little intimidated by the prospect of learning the game.

“Mah Jong is an interesting game,” Madam Chao announced. Anna and Daphne looked sceptical. “It is a game of skill and strategy, a game where you must calculate the possibilities and must sometimes pretend things are not as they are. But it is also a game of chance. Good hand or bad hand, you can play them well or poorly. This is like life and is like males, too. Poor male can be well-trained. Good male can be spoiled.”

The ring of a bell at an adjacent table brought a waiter scuttling out to serve Mijiu. The women at the table each took a glass, downed it, and then returned to their game, the tiles clacking noisily on the table.

“Also, maybe playing Mah Jong give you insight into Chinese culture. Sometimes it is right to wait for the best move. Sometimes it is wiser to stop your opponent from making the move they want rather than to make the move you want.”

Fara picked up one of the tiles from the box. It felt warm in her hand, its edges soft from its use in thousands of games.

“Plus, another benefit comes from proficiency.”

“What’s that, Madam Chao?” Colette asked.

“You can make a great deal of money! It is a very competitive game.”

As if to underline her remarks, there was a cry of “Majong!” followed by a disgruntled “Ha!” from one of the other tables as a portly Chinese matron, got to her feet in evident annoyance at having lost. She reached forward to the table and picked up a small handbell. Two short rings brought a man carrying what was evidently the woman’s handbag out of the back room. She took out a purse and unfolded a wad of notes. She passed across what must have been over £100, Fara thought, to the woman opposite her at the table before stalking off, with the man trailing along behind her.

Madam Chao spent a while explaining the rules and taking the girls through a simple game. They found it unexpectedly engaging. Daphne, competitive as in everything, was an aggressive player. Anna was more cautious, taking longer to pick up the essential points. Fara and Colette had both played cards at home, were familiar with rummy, and found it easy to understand the essentials.

The games went on for over an hour. Then, Fara looked up to see a face she recognised. Corey Preston, a friend of her mother, was standing in the doorway. Fara wondered for a moment if she was there with news from home — she realised that she hadn’t spoken to her mother since she’d got to Gerard Street — but soon realised that Corey’s arrival had just been so she could catch a few words with Madam Chao.

Taking a moment out from the game, Madam Chao went to greet her. Fara did overhear a few words from Madam Chao. “She is all right, you say? Then, we shouldn’t let that interfere. Distraction at this time would be unhelpful.” They didn’t seem to be significant. She soon forgot about them and returned to her game.

It was midnight before Madam Chao and the girls headed back to the Tea Parlour.

Contrary to expectations the girls had all enjoyed themselves.