i leave home earlier and head to the cemetery at a hill, mortuary tablets lined up on concrete stairs. taking a damp cloth i wipe down the stone shrine of my great grandparents half at the request of my mother telling me to look after the grave, the faded polaroid picture catches a curve of sunlight and put my palms together, closing my eyes into some warm darkness that slowed the rush of hurried visitors and coming taxis thinking what life did they have that decorated photo albums where they rested at piers on weekends lingering a while longer before heading back home.
taking the minibus, sunlight flits through the tree branches as it takes a mountain pass road to reach the high school. entering the school’s perimeter, the courtyard without students leaves only noise from running air conditioners as the corridors shimmered from the white windows. at the student council room, rin opens the shutters, white slits down the wall before i look over ,long dark brown hair parts to her delicate face buoyant among the hard verticies of the room and she always conducted herself with a kind of grace that held her in a kind of distance from the stirred whisperings in hallways that seemingly encouraged other students to right themselves if she drew near. although to me, she would always tend to lean close, give a small smirk when i only continue to face her expecting some kind of rote conversation before pulling back to whatever we were talking about. she must have found it thrilling to suddenly appear in her bodily ways, that slender body pushing itself close to others, how her steps could even let her turn in place if she wanted to or put her hands behind her back while walking as if concealing something so wonderful, all these mannerisms reminiscent of all those forward female archetypes out of dramas.
‘you’re here early’ she mentions.
‘morning, thomas and kwan aren’t here yet?’ i ask going to boil some water.
‘no, i think they’re studying somewhere for now. they usually get here later’
‘so much for examples for the students’ i sit at the table while rin checks her mobile phone. she was one of the other prefects before i was chosen and her soft welcome at the time seemed to ease me a bit as i was expecting either percocious or jaded seniors who would lounge away afternoons staring at students parting towards their late night plans or studies in distant bedrooms.
‘well, people are looking to what university to go to, right?’
‘right, did you decide on yours?’
‘i thought of going to hku to study law or politics.’ she answered. whenever the legislative council is on television i mostly remember the men yelling at a tribunal while others either sat bored at the agitation or disinterested.
‘you’re going from the mountains to another mountain to study huh? when did the judicial system become so agricultural...besides, isn’t it tough business. you might spend years on a case’
‘well someone has to do it, i think, like being a prefect...oh did you remember what i asked last, about being a prefect?’
‘i had a banquet. was busy. sorry’
‘oh,’ she pouts a little, a kind of face i’d reckon would make most cave to her whims but felt it was more an affectation she learned from a tvb drama. she always appeared quite trendy with stylish attire whenever she’s out with friends who usually throw on a t-shirt, or tying her hair up when going to sheung wan, a taut body with only a few smirks to young bachelors as she would move around those smooth concourses. ‘well, i guess we’re always outside of all those conversations’ she looks outside, almost imagining those coteries of students walking in catching each other about what happened on last night’s dramas or planning for weekends only with a few students starting to arrive at the courtyard, simply walking to their class, waiting to go home again from the still afternoons. footsteps rang down the hall to find thomas and kwan running here, arriving right when the kettle clicks to indicate the water’s been boiled. both of them panting and a little damp as thomas’ side part begins to unravel and kwan adjusts his glasses while standing straight to greet us.
‘did you guys bathe in a fountain?’ i ask.
‘well we must be an example so we arrive 15 minutes before most of the other students come in’ thomas asserted
‘really now? they do say that no matter how detailed a statue is carved, the town square would still bereave the graceless shuffles of their absence’
‘whatever, you boiled tea right?’ kwan shrugged before heading to the kettle. ‘most of the teachers are arriving so we should be ready anyway.’
‘you think the transfer student from america is gonna be trouble?’
‘doubt it, they’re already having trouble adjusting. they should know better than to start anything’
‘right’ i use my cellphone screen to check my collar from the reflection and buttons before heading out as the halls begin to populate with students mentioning something about a new student showing up in one of the classes. i was made prefect mostly out of a lack of other applicants and the teacher who chose me, ms. lee, seemingly saw some promise despite my grades being only slightly above average. she only said it would be better to have someone unexpected as a prefect and that it would be a good experience, saying i have a good head on my shoulders. the halls lacked any disturbances among the usual chatter as i go to groups of students being mildly interested in their weekends and catching rumours of some troublemakers, tsao, birdie and po caught smoking on school grounds. i usually left that to thomas and kwan who would tell me that they handle them most of the time and with the presence of those trouble-making students strictly being the wild stories whispered around the cafeterias, it didn’t really concern me. confronting them would mostly be a fun agitation to pass the time thinking like it would in film where i would fight or get beaten up. i head to class prompting some stragglers to get going before remaining in an empty hallway once again. class went by without much incident as ms. lee taught english requiring us to stand and read thinking the students from america would have no trouble with this. before leaving for lunch, ms. lee tells me to wait a moment. a woman in her mid30s whose porcelain cheeks began to pudge ever so slightly but was considered a charm for those who liked older women, especially with the rumour that she was dating a student who then quietly disappeared. this used to arouse a faint tension in her classes that has mostly dissipated in the face of more spectacular chatter of students being suspected in gangs or peddling cigarettes. she sighed as the last student left, slouching on the blackboard and waited as the seconds endured.
‘did you have a good weekend, ms. lee?’ i try to start some rote conversation.
‘nothing too spectacular. the usual. i’m not looking forward to the teacher’s meetings’
‘i suppose being in a board room with some stuffy bureaucrats isn’t fashionable’.
‘i know, like...what am i doing here, right?...’ she shakes her head before remembering what she wanted to ask, ‘has anything come up recently?’
‘nothing that i’ve heard. more of this and you might not even need a prefect’
‘oh...you don’t mean that.’ she giggles ‘it’s doing good for you, i can tell’ and with that a flash of discipline crept in her voice as if she had been guiding me despite her slightly flamboyant after class manners.
‘i suppose, i guess it just makes it easier to command respect.’
‘i’ve been around students for a long time and i’m aware who would make be a model student who has a hint of enforcing the ideals of the school and it takes more than their deployment but wanting to see justice,’ she stopped before adding, ‘besides, it certainly made everyone forget that you got in trouble a few years ago for fighting’
‘careful, ms. lee, talk like this might start another rumour, and i have no intention in being a paramour even in kidding.’
‘yes, we have been here long enough. i’ll let the next teacher know you might be late’
‘thank you ms. lee’ i nod before heading out to meet rin briefly for lunch. she always ate at the top of the stairwell near that led to the roof. pineapple bun crust crumbled onto the floor as she talked, hand over her mouth.
‘that new student, apparently, he’s quite popular’
‘is he in your class?’
‘no the one next door but alot of people were asking him about how his home in america was’
‘hm, i guess thomas was worrying too much wasn’t he’
‘i heard his cantonese is okay too. a little spotty in places but the juniors go crazy for his english apparently’
‘sounds like we got an actor huh?’
‘it’s temporary. people are like that...’ she trailed off.
‘you sound sombre’
‘i just worry that he might think the new found popularity might be normal when it isn’t. soon he’ll just be forgotten as everyone’s focusing on exams. like it or not, he is still in a school. grades get to the top like most achievements’ rin only continued eating. i liked when she got serious but she always tried to reign herself in to stay objective or something like that. ‘is your studying going okay?’
‘mild, i was busy on the weekend but i did some’
‘maybe we can study a little together on the friday?’
‘why not ask kwan, he looks smart’
‘him? i feel like he’s kind of a pervert’
‘is it the glasses?’
‘a little. the other prefects seem too pushy. i just want to relax a bit’
‘heh, okay. friday it is then. want to meet at tsim sha tsui?’
‘hey it’d be good to see the pier after?’
‘what are you planning?’
‘you just said you wanted to relax. i have evidence’
she sighs but agrees. the bell rings, a chime clongs back and forth up a musical scale. the afternoon proceeded listening to a teacher go on about trignometry while i had scribbled on my notebook margins, thinking that the teacher might notice my straying attention but to no avail, the school day ends and i slip through. i get my backpack where the afternoon heat began to weaken the air conditioner’s hold on the air, glad i packed a cap, a change of clothes and sunglasses. i head to the student council room to find rin already gone home while thomas and kwan were studying. like me, they had nothing much to report other than a small dispute about video games and it sounded mildly amusing for kwan to try and defuse the situation since he knew nothing about games at all, his stumbles to try and figure out the nuances of the problem may have made him look like he was entirely too old to even attend school.
‘oh damn, i left my copy of a math textbook in the ground floor classroom’ thomas groaned while searching his bag.
‘ouch, should i get it?’ i offered. ‘you look busy studying.’
‘er...yeah, please, thanks.’
i made my way down passing a couple teachers going to a staff meeting, ms. lee giving a wave from the half open door at the conference room, the shadows of the stairs thinning in the receding daylight. opening the classroom door, i found thomas’ book from within the desk, dusting off the cover wondering if he had forgotten it. vituperations muffled against the window and stopped hearing a voice in english then break into cantonese sounding slightly familiar as another voice cut him off. through the blinds, i could see yan surrounded by three other students, tsao, birdie and po who were the subjects of scrunity mostly fulfilling their roles by acting unruly. tsao shoved yan into the dirt and i took my cell phone, moving to the back of the class so i would be behind po and birdie who stood audience to tsao. yan was still recovering from the fall which provided substantial evidence of foul play as i pressed the photo capture button and sent the photo to myself while under the name blocked number. then, i quickly got changed, putting on my cap and sunglasses, taking a face mask from the nearby infirmary room and a folding chair by one of the stairways and snuck over to the wall to hear their conversation.
‘i think i heard a door open, tsao. i think we oughta go.’ birdie remarks
‘i ain’t finished with him,’ tsao chastised before turning to yan ‘i think it’s common knowledge that you’re in shek’s crew so let me ask again. where do i find him. i got a good deal to cut him in with’ yan only spat on the ground, chuckling before telling him in english
‘kuh...if you wanna make business deals, why don’t you go to your local pharmacist’
i peek over to see tsao pull a butterfly knife from his back pocket and a ‘tch’ sound breaks between my teeth, realizing i made a perceptible sound and i move in, the chair blindsides po and i lunge a foot into birdie, launching him into the fence. tsao, startled, keels into the ground as yan kicks him in the gut following with a punch that hurls him to the ground before yan tears off around the corner. after stomping po once more, i run back into the school bathroom to change into my uniform, the disguise placed in my locker and head out to the see the three still lying on the ground, struggling to get up.
‘shit, prefects.’ birdie tried to run but stops upon a teacher coming by who must have heard the racket.
‘don’t move’ i walk over, tsao crawls around the dirt for the blade and i kick it over to him and he grabs it before also noticing.
‘what’s going on here?’ the teacher, a man in his late 30s asks.
‘i found these three on the ground and with a knife. i came as fast as i could.’
‘we got jumped, i’m telling you.’
‘all of you, we’ll go to the principal’s office’ the teacher resorted as we all made a gloomy walk up to the third floor. the office was lavished in wooden desks and glass antiques housed in lacquered cabinets. the principal was a heavy-set man carrying a dignified contempt as he would tell us to be an ideal example of the school’s morals. even ms. lee couldn’t stand him. obviously tired and a little annoyed from having to deal with this after a staff meeting. ms. lee also arrived with yan along with thomas and kwan. the spectacle of this gathering was starting to arouse some disgust. principal ko only demanded,
‘what happened out there? what do you boys have to say for yourselves’
‘we were just hanging around, sir. some guy jumped us with a folding chair’
‘i dunno, some guy with a hat and glasses, he had a face mask on, ran back through the school...’
‘if i may sir,’ i intervene, ‘ i recieved this photo from someone anonymously and went to a vantage point to ascertain this since i was on the first floor already and then moved to the scene as quick as i could.’ i show him the photo from a text i sent myself that says blocked number and he already sighs.
‘and you did not intervene right away, that seems out of character even for you’
‘principal, our prefects may respond to these situations but are not the ones who solve them. prefect sheng was only exercising caution’
‘and what, prefect sheng, were you doing on the first floor’
‘i was helping prefect mak get his book from his class. it was quite timely to get this but in the end, i am glad that no one has been hurt’
‘i can confirm this. prefect mak did ask him.’ kwan answered. principal ko only turns to yan who keeps his head level but like all, without defiant glances.
‘can you confirm this mr. lau?’
‘fucker punched me!’ tsao protested
‘your grades are only average and you’re causing trouble? what are you here for?!’ he reprimands. ‘now you’re bullying students, and bringing illegal weapons. you could be in jail at this rate! i could call the police right now!’
‘but principal ko, the school can’t take a scandal. our reputation might be at stake. i think it is best that we resolve the matter quietly.’ ms. lee mentions
principal ko grunts before composing himself. ‘mr. zhang, please bring that weapon to the police station. ms. lee, go with him to make sure he does so. you have a car, so you can drive him there. i will join you momentarily.’
‘sir’ thomas reaches out. ‘i’d like to offer some help to tsao and his friends. as a prefect, it is important for us to show students in need the way and teach them on a much more personal level. this should close the matter quicker. we will report to you if anything happens but if we keep an eye on them, their behaviour should be set straight.’ he glances to the three all with their heads down with tsao giving an almost signature sneer.
‘very well. i will leave it to you prefect mak. the rest of you offer him assistance. it goes without saying i do not want this kind of incident to be reported again.’
‘what about the assailant?’ kwan asks.
‘he is out of school property is he not? we’ll keep an eye out for him but if he is an outsider, he is none of our business. you should focus on your studies, all of you’ he leaves us and we all file out catching our breath. prefect mak places a hand on tsao’s shoulder before they all leave.
‘need help with anything?’
‘nah, we got this. we finished studying anyway, i’ll just discuss the terms of the deal’
‘alright, i’ll see you.’ i walk off, seeing a glare from tsao and po before turning the corner. yan waits at the stairwell where he smirks. lips sealed with a secret in his chuckle. we walked together to the bus stop where it promptly arrives, the doors fold after it halts in front of us and upon boarding, he whispers.
‘pardon my blunt questions, mr. prefect, but that was you wasn’t it, with the chair?’
‘ha, alright, well, i won’t say anything’ he put his hands up.
‘so, you’re the new student?’
‘yeah, i transferred in a while ago but i had to get homeschooled a bit first. You know, going into this school system,’
‘right...well it will be alot of studying or looking busy.’ i mention before asking ‘so what’s the trouble with tsao and his crew?’
‘nah, they were bugging me about someone i was tutoring’
‘someone owed them money?’
‘no, they wanted to see him for something, i wasn’t gonna let it happen...’ he trails off a little hardened and i avoid the subject despite hearing about shek and pharmaceuticals.
‘i guess there might be more rumours, sounds like you’re already gonna be a star huh?’
‘what do you mean?’
‘you’re famous among junior girls not to mention tutoring. now you’re involved in fights’
‘huh, so i’m a regular gatsby now? are there gonna be rumours of me killing a man’
‘hey who knows what they think of california eh?’
the bus goes to a more populated area nearing the terminal station by kwai fong near a shopping centre where yan gets off disappearing into the crowd that speckled the bus windows, a torrent of concrete washes through the window. at home i study until dusk, my fingers easily agitated scribbling much more on the notebook pages, all the concepts as vague impressions and vectors conjuring them into writing, already annoyed that it is already dinner as yuen opens the door to our room to tell me. dinner endured to the news broadcast flickering a faint blue glow of stylized arguments and accostings at legislative council wondering what rin thinks when she sees this, the din of chopsticks on bowls almost melodic in the silence.
‘ho? how was school,’ my mom asks
‘the same...’ i answer. ‘i... intervened in some bullying late noon’ i brought up for no particular reason.
‘oh, you did?’
‘did you beat them up?’ my father says offhand, chewing.
‘well...they were a bit of trouble so i had to defend myself.’
my mom only sighs.
‘you know you ought to solve these matters more diplomatically.’
‘yeah i know...’ i groan before resuming the dinner, the tv drama once again in full swing as it cuts to the credits sequence. my older brother fumbles his food, a gailan stalk hit the table much to the chagrin of my father who only shakes his head. yuen only gets up after he finishes eating, rushing the words ‘i’m done, enjoy the rest of the meal’