A gentle touch
Mr Ping was in high gear. Last night, when he had closed the Tea House, he had set the cleaning bots to work, clearing every speck of dust, every crumb, from the floor and from the tables; every splatter was now gone from the walls. The bots had been going all night, ensuring they missed nothing, and had only retired a few moments ago. This evening, the doors would be closed to the public. This evening was a Special Occasion.
Once a year, Mr Ping closed the Tea House to the public. Nothing short of a great honour would usually move him to do such a thing, and the noodle bar downstairs was still open. But tonight, the restaurant itself was sealed off, reserved for the kung fu masters of the Sphere of the White Crane, and their students. Today, it was Chinese New Year, and the martial artists gathered for a grand celebratory meal.
Once he was satisfied that the restaurant was pristine, he made his way to the door. He sat for a while, idly peeling garlic cloves, then checked the time, took the peeled cloves to the family kitchen and returned to the entrance in readiness. He was wearing his smartest robes. Another few minutes and the martial artists would arrive.
He heard the bustle as they approached the door, and he stood a head taller as he drew himself up in preparation.
A second before he let them in, he glanced over at Li Ming, one of his longest-serving waitresses, and she nodded, turned and flicked a switch. The moment Master Yang crossed the threshold – not a second before – the sound of an ancient erhu wafted through the restaurant as the music system came to life.
‘Ah,’ said Mr Ping as he shook Master Yang’s hand. The master’s grip was strong. ‘Ni hao, ni hao! Come in,’ he said, ‘welcome, welcome.’
‘Gong xi fa cai, gong xi fa cai! Xie xie, Ping Xiansheng, xie xie ni,’ said Master Yang. ‘Thank you as always for letting us take over your beautiful Tea House!’
‘Oh,’ said Mr Ping, ‘the pleasure is all mine, all mine! Heheh! Now, do go and sit down, make yourself comfortable. Ah, Li Wei, good to see you again! Bo Qin! Not going to eat me out of house and home, again, are you, eh? Heheh!’
Bo Qin shook his hand, but Mr Ping could tell his little joke had not gone down very well. That little episode must still be rather a sore point. He resolved not to mention it again in the lad’s presence.
As he shook the students’ hands and they made their way to the tables, he noticed near the back of the line a face he hadn’t seen before. A new student, or at least one who had started training in the few months since they had last been here. He was holding himself strangely, perhaps as the result of some injury in training, but… on closer inspection, Ping thought not. This was an old injury.
Once the students and all the instructors were seated, Ping made his way towards what he thought of as Cook Ding’s domain. As he reached the door, he stopped; braced himself. There was a noisy kitchen behind it, quite the opposite of the other, quieter, family kitchen at the other end of the building.
He turned the handle of the door, and pushed.
Immediately the door opened, a cloud of steam whacked him in the face like a wet flannel, and he recoiled for a moment before composing himself and stepping through into the chaos.
‘He’s over there, Mr Ping,’ one of the sous-chefs called, pointing with the enormous chopsticks he was using to stir the noodle soup. He managed to return them to the pot before any drips fell onto the floor, and continued to stir vigorously, his eyes glazed in concentration.
Ping shielded his face and sure enough, there, in the distance, and through the steam, was Cook Ding. He was peering into an over-sized wok, wafting his hand up to his nose. A second later, he dipped a ceramic spoon into it, blew on the contents and took a tentative sip.
‘Too much salt!’ he yelled, looking round for the offending chef. ‘Young Master Lu, what the fuck have you done to this sauce? Get your arse over here, now! Oh,’ he said, lowering his voice slightly, ‘hello, sir. I didn’t see you there.’ He wiped his hands on his apron and beckoned Mr Ping over to where he was standing. ‘It’s all go in here, as you can see, but don’t you worry, everything will be fine.’
‘They’re all here,’ Ping said, ‘all in their seats. No rush, though, Li Ming is pouring out the jasmine tea and taking beer orders, so you’ve got time yet.’
Cook Ding wiped the back of his wrist across his wet brow, then washed his hands in the sink at the far end of the kitchen before returning to his station.
‘All the same,’ he said, ‘these are important guests, Mr Ping, and it is my pride and joy that they always go away satisfied. The food will be perfect.’
‘Glad to hear it,’ said Ping, ‘though I never doubted it for a second. I shall leave you to it, then.’
He bowed, turned towards the door and left.
‘You remember that time we were in here and Dmitri Gao Lin ate so many steamed buns that he was sick? So funny!’ Iakov Li Wei shook his head at the memory of the eating competition they’d had that year.
‘It was disgusting,’ said Ilariy Bo Qin. ‘I wish I’d never agreed to it.’ He grimaced at Iakov across the table. ‘You thought it was funny because you were nowhere near him. I was sitting right next to him.’
Iakov tried to suppress a smirk and failed.
‘I’m serious, Li Wei, it wasn’t funny.’
‘Calm down, now,’ said Master Yang, throwing a searching glance at Iakov. The boy was still struggling not to laugh. Although Master Yang sympathised – he remembered himself trying not to laugh at the time – it was quite clear that Ilariy did not see the funny side, and perhaps never would. Understandable – Ilariy’s clothes had needed a good clean after that meal and the two had had a hard time being friendly to each other for some time afterwards. Kung fu etiquette compelled Ilariy to behave civilly, so there was no obvious ill-feeling between them in the dojo, but in any case, a couple of months later, Dmitri had gone on to do his Imperial Service and was now serving as a martial soldier. For the dojo, it was an accolade. Even though he had always been a joker, Dmitri was a good student and Master Yang was proud of him, if a little sad that he had decided not to return to the dojo to continue his tuition. Had he wished to go down that path, he would have been a good instructor, given the right training.
When it came time to eat, it was Mr Ping himself who brought their food over. He arrived at the table bearing a huge tray full of Ping Tai-tai’s finest dim sum. Among them, steamed dumplings, stinky tofu and grilled whitebait with chilli and ginger. And that was just for starters. There would be more to come. Those who had never been to a kung fu dinner before today were in for a severe shock at the sheer volume of food they would be expected to eat. Some of the more senior students were prepared. They had brought doggy bags.
As Ping made his way to each of the tables, Master Yang uttered the words they had all been waiting for since the first dish had arrived.
‘Don’t wait. Eat.’
The tables were all suddenly much quieter as everyone dug in, and for a few moments, the only sounds in the restaurant were those of clattering chopsticks and moans of gustatory pleasure, but it was not long before the chatter started up again as the kung fu brothers exchanged tales and jokes.
‘Dmitri was all right,’ Evgeny Ma Xiu Jing said. He had been working at the restaurant for some time, part of an agreement Ping had with the kung fu community, but Ping Tai-tai had insisted he have the evening off so he could join his kung fu brothers for this important meal. ‘He was a prankster, that’s all. He didn’t mean any harm. He just went too far, that day.’ He dipped a dumpling into the chilli oil and shook it gently before bringing it to his mouth.
‘But a prankster has no place in a reputable dojo,’ Ilariy said.
‘Oh, come on,’ said Iakov. ‘Evgeny’s right. He was harmless, although I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of him. He was always excellent at sparring. If he ever did have a temper, that was definitely how he channelled it.’
‘Had you on the floor a few times, if I recall,’ said Master Yang to Evgeny. He reached over to the lazy Susan and gripped two or three whitebait between his black chopsticks, dropped the fish onto his plate, then switched to the white ones to eat with.
Evgeny blushed a little. ‘Yes, he did.’ Evgeny, it was widely accepted, was one of Master Yang’s best students, but he had still had to give everything he had to give when he sparred with Gao Lin. It wasn’t that Dmitri was naturally gifted; more that he had a slightly vicious streak in him that he had always suppressed, which he only unleashed during sparring classes. ‘He never hurt me, though,’ Evgeny went on. He smiled at the memory of time spent with his kung fu brother. ‘Not once.’
‘I got this from sparring,’ said Shura Pei Zhi, and put down his chopsticks to present his arm to the table. He grimaced slightly. There was a large bruise, now turning from purple to yellow, on the back of his arm above the elbow. ‘That time I fell and landed on the joint. A couple of Imperial weeks back.’
‘That still hurts you?’ said Master Yang, frowning. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’
‘I didn’t want to bother you with it. Really, it’s nothing. It’ll heal on its own.’
Master Yang nodded, noncommittal. Shura retrieved his chopsticks and carried on eating.
Mr Ping approached the table with the last of the starter dishes. He held an enormous tray in both hands, and it was heavily stacked with pieces of lobster, still in the shell. The lobster pieces sat on a generous bed of noodles, and Ping made a grand show of placing the tray in the centre of the lazy Susan. Now, as Ping retreated, Oleg Lao Fu was about to discover what it meant to be the youngest brother – the newest student in the club.
‘You get to eat the head,’ said Pyotr Guang Li. ‘That’s the rule.’
Lao Fu frowned. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Of course,’ said Guang Li. ‘You’re the youngest brother, here.’
‘But… surely that is a delicacy only the master should eat.’
‘Eat it,’ said Georgi Lan To.
Lao Fu hesitated. He trusted his elder brothers, but he was not used to such honour being bestowed upon him. At home also, he was the youngest son, and had never considered the possibility that he might ever have such privileges until he was married himself, and a father, when he would become head of his own household. To be given such an honour now seemed dubious.
Tentatively, he picked up the head of the lobster with his black chopsticks and dropped it onto his plate. Then he picked up the white chopsticks.
‘What’s keeping you?’ asked Georgi.
‘Seriously,’ said Guang Li, ‘you get to eat the head.’
‘But…’ Lao Fu’s chopsticks were hovering over his plate. The creature’s eyes were black jewels surrounded by a pink matrix, looking up, or so it seemed, at Lao Fu.
‘Oh, but you must,’ said Master Yang, from his place at one of the neighbouring tables. ‘Your elder brothers have offered it to you as a gift. Besides, it is a ritual. It would be dishonourable to refuse.’
Lao Fu was about to respond, but then Master Yang turned around and resumed the conversation he had been having with Evgeny Ma Xiu Jing.
Lao Fu poked at the lobster’s head and peered at it. What was apparently its brain was protruding from the flesh. It looked like a shrivelled broad bean.
Resigning himself now to eating the head of the poor lobster, Lao Fu picked it up between his chopsticks, but then he winced, tried not to show the pain on his face and dropped the head back onto his plate. A chorus of voices surrounded him as his brothers all thought he was putting it on to avoid eating it.
‘What’s the matter?’ said Mr Ping, who was passing. ‘Don’t like seafood?’
‘It’s not that, Mr Ping,’ said Lao Fu, who was now gripping the offending shoulder. ‘Your food is excellent.’
‘Ah,’ said Ping, ‘then you must be wide-eyed at all the different dishes here. Don’t you worry,’ he said, slapping the boy on the back a couple of times, ‘there’s plenty more to come. Don’t concern yourself. You just enjoy, yes?’
Lao Fu looked up at Mr Ping.
‘How did you do that?’
Mr Ping’s face took on an expression of perfect innocence. ‘Do what?’
Lao Fu wiggled his shoulder a few times. ‘The pain has gone. It’s been there for months and it’s just… gone.’
‘Pain?’ said Ping. ‘For months? Really? And now it’s gone just because you’ve eaten some of my food? Well, how about that?’
Ping Tai-tai appeared next to her husband, took him aside and whispered in his ear.
‘Are you interfering again, my sweet? You know, you really should leave things like that to the masters.’
‘Things like what?’
‘You know exactly what I’m referring to, Ping Mai, wo de ai, and I really don’t need to remind you that you are a restaurateur, my love, not a kung fu master.’
Lao Fu frowned, but Master Yang had overheard, despite Ping Tai-tai’s apparent efforts to be discreet. He leaned over and murmured, ‘Ah. I see. So it’s true, then.’
‘What’s true?’ asked Georgi.
‘Just something I heard, years back. A little tale someone told me. I always wondered.’ He nodded and stood up, then went to stand next to Mr Ping. Lowering his voice, he said, ‘Tell me. Where did you learn such skills?’
Ping shrugged. His wife rolled her eyes.
‘If you wish this to remain between us, Mr Ping, then I assure you, it shall. But I am glad to know that what my elder brother once told me is indeed true. One hears so many stories, it is often hard to distinguish truth from fiction,’ Master Yang went on. ‘I have always prided myself on my ability to tell the difference, but of this one, I was never certain. Well,’ he said, as he sat down again, ‘now I know.’ He smiled, grabbed his chopsticks and continued eating.
The students, baffled, looked on. But Master Yang would not elaborate.