An Evening Out Pt 4
‘Are you all right?’ Lily asked.
‘Fine,’ Madam Wong said. She still appeared a little unsteady, even though she was sitting down. ‘I’ll tell ya what, though.’
‘What?’ Daisy said.
‘I couldn’t have fallen any further, could I?’
She let rip with a loud cackle, slapping the table with her palms, and the girls joined in her laughter. Now they were all completely plastered, the night could truly begin.
The Peony Pavilion was packed. Everywhere they looked, the girls saw huddles of people out celebrating New Year. All were drinking heavily. There were one or two minor scuffles, but most were just having a good time and saying hello to their ancestors.
Looking around, Madam Wong thought she could see several who had passed on already; she spied at least two ladies in what appeared to be Qing dynasty clothes – just like the ones from ancient texts – plus a man in the dark robes of an Imperial Mandarin. Though they may just have been living people in fancy costume, in her current state of inebriation it was hard for Madam Wong to tell the difference.
The Peony Pavilion was dressed up, too. As befitted the occasion, there were red paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and painted couplets pinned to the walls. Madam Wong pretended to read them out loud: ‘Goodbye to the Year of the Fire Ant!’ she cried. ‘Heh heh! Happy welcomes to the Year of the Lesser Spotted Reed Warbler!’ She caught Daisy’s eye and winked.
(At the beginning of the previous Year of the Snake, Madam Wong had witnessed a strange incident involving a bamboo steamer, a piece of string and a small bird. As a result she had decided that the Year of the Snake would henceforth be known to her only as the Year of the Lesser Spotted Reed Warbler. Though the girls had pressed her on numerous occasions for further details, Madam Wong had provided none.)
The waiters circulated constantly among the tables, taking orders, bringing fresh drinks, and carrying empty glasses back to the bar. All the drinks on offer were garishly coloured, and many had little bits of fire sticking out at the top. Some had glitter balls floating on the surface of the drink, while others had flowers floating freely through the depths; these never touched the bottom of the glass but would move away the moment they got close. Madam Wong, seeing this, was enraptured, and declared it by far the Fleet’s greatest marvel of modern technology.
‘Seriously?’ said the new girl, Heather. ‘What about the mochibots?’
Madam Wong frowned. ‘What about ’em?’
‘Well,’ Heather went on, ‘aren’t they a marvel of modern technology?’
There was a stifled snort from the corner of the table as Lily tried not to laugh.
‘Them things?’ Madam Wong said. ‘You must be jock… joik… jokin’,’ she managed. ‘Aren’t ya?’
‘No,’ said Heather. ‘I think they’re fabulous.’
‘Fabulous?’ Madam Wong pointed a perfectly manicured fingernail at the newest resident of the Lotus Blossom Palace. ‘I’ll tell you what’s fabulous, shall I? The only fing what’s fab… fabrush… fab… amazing about them things is that they ever worked at all. Nothing but tea urns on wheels. Fabulous,’ she muttered. ‘If Mr Zhang ’adn’t fixed ’em, they still woulda bin goin’ around crashin’ inta walls and things.’
‘It gave them charm,’ Rosa said.
‘I think so,’ Daisy agreed. ‘I mean,’ she said, back-pedalling when she saw Madam Wong’s expression, ‘they’re better now they’ve been fixed, an’ all, but I liked ’em well enough before, as well. They were cute.’
‘Yeah, well,’ Madam Wong sniffed, ‘they was a bloody nuisance, if you ask me. All right when I bought ’em, I’ll grant you. But they soon started goin’ off in all directions at once! Bleedin’ nightmare. Nah,’ she said, ‘they’re much better now Mr Zhang’s fixed ’em.’
‘Good enough to be left in charge of the Lotus Blossom Palace?’ Lily asked. ‘Are you sure?’
‘You seemed to like ’em well enough before,’ Madam Wong said.
‘I do. But if they’re such a pain in the arse, I’m surprised you left the place in their care, thass all.’
‘Well, like I said – they’re all right now,’ replied Madam Wong. ‘Mr Zhang did a fine job on ’em. He’s a good man, that one. Pity they can’t all be like ’im.’
The girls sank into a mood of reflection when she said this, as they thought about some of the less pleasant encounters they’d had with clients. Most of the time, Madam Wong kept the bad ones away, but there were always some whose presence was merely tolerated rather than welcomed.
‘Now then,’ she said, ‘lighten up, ladies. It’s drinks o’clock!’
She lifted a hand into the air to summon a waiter; Meng Li immediately glided over to the table, smart parchment notebook and stylus in hand.
‘Ladies,’ he said, and bowed. ‘What can I get for you?’
They made their choices again, and once more, the waiter was back within only a few minutes with another tray full of drinks.
‘Will there be anything else, ladies?’ He looked at each of them in turn, finally settling his gaze on Madam Wong. ‘Some nibbles, perhaps?’
‘Dim sum, rice crackers, shrimp sticks…’ He counted them off on his fingers. ‘I can bring you the nibbles menu, if you wish?’
‘Nibbles menu?’ Madam Wong said. ‘No food menu?’
‘Nibbles only, I’m afraid,’ the waiter said. ‘The management likes to focus on drinks. Food, they consider, would be an unwelcome distraction. The drinks are where our staff’s specialities lie.’
‘Hmm,’ said Madam Wong. ‘I see.’
It was clear she didn’t really, but no one said anything.
‘We can eat back at home,’ Lily said.
‘Yeah,’ agreed Rosa, ‘let’s just carry on here and then finish off later on, when we’re all—’
‘Too pissed to cook anything,’ Daisy said.
‘I wasn’t suggestin’ cookin’, was I?’ Lily snapped. ‘We’ve got plenty of stuff we can eat, without ’avin’ to cook anythin’ at all.’
‘Right then,’ Madam Wong said, ‘that’s settled.’ She looked round the table at the girls. ‘Which one of you can sing?’
As Madam Wong punched in the code to the front door of the Lotus Blossom Palace, the mochibots came hurtling towards her, their little lights flashing to warn the intruders not to try anything funny or else.
At last they seemed to recognise who it was outside; immediately the lights stopped flashing and the mochibots backed away, emitting a series of submissive bleeps.
‘There we are,’ she said, as they piled in through the door and into the lobby. ‘Home, sweet fucking home.’
One of the bots trundled up to her and gave a plaintive squeak. It extended a spindly arm, at the end of which was positioned a small cup half-full of lukewarm tea. Seemingly as an afterthought, a second arm swung forward to present Madam Wong with a tired-looking mochi.
She peered at it closely. ‘That the last one, is it?’
The bot squeaked.
‘Oh,’ said Madam Wong. ‘That’s kind o’ you. Thanks very much.’