Aung Thin story
Type
Fiction

Tea ceremony

I knew it was wrong as I left the store, the box sitting flat and heavy in my black and white plastic bag. But there’s a weakness I have for paying less than full cost. If I haven’t really earned a thing, it becomes that bit more precious.

I’d tried pointing out the mistake. The clerk had handed me my package and turned his face to the next customer, one of several who’d been waiting for some time in the queue behind me. My turn was over, so why was I still there?

He was frustrated. I got that. Slammed was the word he used when I asked, how’s your day been? Then I asked lot of questions about tablets and phones (how many GB, SIM slot or no SIM slot) before honing in on a product and making a decision. I asked for a discount, although one wasn’t advertised (the stereotypical Asian migrant). As he rung up the sale, I presented a gift card (seriously, another discount?). Then I forgot my PIN and the card was declined so he was forced to put the whole transaction through again. Finally, the sale was done. But still, I was holding up the queue, querying the totals. I could see he had to stop himself from rolling his eyes. Instead, he held the receipt up high – high enough for the people behind me to see as he read out each figure in a loud voice, jabbing a finger as he went:

Jab. ‘$679. Your original price.’

Jab. ‘$649. Your reduced price.’

Jab, jab. ‘$629. Your additional discount from your $20 gift card.’

 

I was pretty sure he was wrong. I thought he’d rung up $20, not $629. But the bill was a little too far away for me to see it clearly and he was making such a big thing about it in front of all those people that I just apologised, another middle-aged sans papiers among the digital natives. He folded my receipt back into the bag and smiled.

‘Don’t worry about it, Ma’am. It’s this heat. Stupid hot.’

I stared back hard at him. It was the heat that chased me out of the house that afternoon, onto an air-conditioned tram, and into the city’s air-conditioned emporia. Heat that drew me up the escalators to this normally empty computer department with its views across flat city rooftops and the big post office tower clock. The tablet was an expensive whim, the chilly touch of that glass screen too seductive when the air outside was scalding. Now, I felt heat rise in my face. Smug little shit.

I accepted my package and left.

I slunk from air-conditioned shop to air-conditioned shop. I browsed racks of sundresses – maybe something cool to wear to the theatre that evening? I walked the shelves of a bookstore, the black and white bag swinging heavily over my right wrist. Still too hot. I took a tram to the National Gallery on St Kilda Road, the one with the water cascading down a high glass wall. Inside, it was like one of those old European cathedrals: dark, cool and vast enough to absorb the voices of all the people who had gathered to escape the heat.

I checked my shopping and my handbag at the cloakroom. Nearby, a sign announced that a tea ceremony was taking place upstairs in the Japanese gallery of the Asian Collection. On the fourth floor at the centre of a long white room I found a low building with walls on all sides but one. This was the teahouse, and it was already surrounded by a small audience who were listening to a tall young man. I took a seat near the back.

The young man, a white Australian, was explaining that he was an apprentice tea pract­itioner. He pointed out his master, who was kneeling just inside the teahouse. An older man with a faded blonde topknot, wearing a blue kimono. I hadn’t noticed the master until that moment, he was sitting so still, his face turned to the floor. Nothing in his demeanour betrayed any awareness of us, his audience, any discomfort with the missing fourth wall.

‘The tea ceremony is intrinsically Japanese,’ the apprentice continued. He told us that it began as a rite among warriors, that it took a lifetime to learn, such was its intricacy. It was this intricacy that was at its heart because it made contemplation possible.

‘It is ritual that frees the mind,’ the apprentice said.

This was the master’s cue to begin preparations. He pulled himself forward with his fists, silk-covered knees skimming the floor. He moved fast, never once looking away from his tasks, as if he might forget what he was meant to do should he slow down and think about it. The ceremony was as intricate as the apprentice promised and I found myself mesmerised by the master, his quick, precise movements, the way his faded yellow topknot bobbed at the back of his head, the ruddiness of his skin against the blue of kimono. In his absorption, in the tension of his body, I saw that there was something in the ceremony that he needed. Was it this space of contemplation? Or was it the meaning of the gestures, their order and the effort required in remembering? I could not tell.

A woman appeared from behind the teahouse. She was Japanese and dressed for the occasion in what looked like a formal kimono, richly embroidered. Her black hair was gathered up to frame her face. She sat on her knees waiting to be invited inside, as the apprentice told us she should. Meanwhile, the master continued to heat his water, arrange his cups, whisk the tea, his nails clicking softly against the porcelain.

‘When drinking alone,’ the apprentice said, ‘one faces a wall to reflect on one’s true nature. However, in the tea ceremony, reflection is shared, or rather, takes place side by side with another human being.’

Now the Japanese woman entered the teahouse, the crowd murmuring their approval as she pulled herself across the threshold.

I left then. The ceremony, the teahouse without walls, the performance of contemplation before an assembled audience – all of it had worn thin. Besides, the talk of tea made me want a drink. I went to the Member’s Lounge, made myself a long mach at the machine they have, and picked out a magazine. Seating was at a premium and it took me few minutes before I spotted an empty space. I sank into the corner of a deep leather couch with my coffee and my magazine.

Opposite, a woman in an orange smock, long grey hair pinned in loose whorls, was knitting a colourful mess. In an American accent, she was describing Westerfold’s Park to the man next to her, her words forming a leisurely haiku, each line broken by a thrust of her needle:

We rode bikes there

It gets very dry in summer

Sometimes we saw snakes

We took the kids

Every time she spoke, the man started as if jabbed by her needle. But he didn’t turn to face her. When she rolled up her knitting and left, the man stayed behind. A few minutes later, a woman wearing a lacy blouse arrived and gathered him up along with her handbag and a tote from the gallery shop. The room was thinning out. It was nearly five o’clock. I remembered I had theatre tickets. A group of us were making a night of it: we had arranged to have drinks and a swim at my sister-in-law’s beforehand. My husband and son would be there by now, already in the pool. I was dreading the hot tram ride.

I queued at the coat check. When the clerk handed me my things, the first thing I did was fish out my receipt. Immediately, I saw the clerk’s error:

$679, the original price.

$629, what he should have charged.

My total – $20.

I would have to go back to the shop.

Outside, the day was hotter still. Crossing St Kilda Road, the trams running north-south before me, I felt like I was pushing against a wall. Why go all the way back when I’d already pointed out the mistake – his mistake?

Stupid hot.

A tram pulled up. It was heading south, away from the city, towards my sister-in-law’s suburb. I got on.

 

Her bluestone house was full of our teenaged children. My son’s fingers skimmed a glass screen while my youngest niece scowled over a laptop in her bikini, a maths textbook open in front of her. She laughed when I told her what had happened.

‘A $20 tablet? Sweet.’

‘I guess I’ll have to ring them and let them know.’

My son looked up from his screen. ‘What will happen to him if you don’t?’

 

I changed into my swimsuit and padded out to the pool, where the adults were. I told the story again, this time to my husband and brother-in-law, waist-deep in the turquoise water, and my sister-in-law, who was googling theatre reviews from her deckchair.

‘They can trace it back to me anyway through my credit card. But I’m going to phone them. He’ll get in trouble, won’t he?’

My husband shrugged. He used to work at the same department store when he was a teenager. Back then, pay packets were fat little envelopes, cash folded inside. ‘I don’t think you have to do a thing.’

My brother-in-law turned lazily in the water, belly to the sky. ‘He’s right, they will trace it back to you. It’s their mistake. So don’t sweat.’

‘What was he like?’ My sister-in-law looked up, fingers still poised above the laptop.

‘Young. Funky hair.’

‘Well, if he had silly hair …’ my husband laughed.

They were still giggling as I dove beneath the water, cooling off in an instant. Hanging beneath the surface, I looked up through silver and blue. I hadn’t told them he was Asian. And should this matter? I swirled my arms, pushed myself down until I was lying on the bottom, the treetops dark and wavy through the silvery surface of the water. An Asian in Australia – not a tourist, not an exile, but not entirely at home. We’d recognised each other, the clerk and I, before we had even spoken.

I pushed off the bottom, climbed out of the pool, towelled dry, then went to my bag and rummaged for my phone. I dialled the number I found on the receipt. The clerk’s name, Albert, was printed above it. When a voice answered, I asked to speak to Albert and he replied, ‘yes?’

‘I don’t know if you remember me, I bought a tablet this afternoon and I thought there might have been a mistake.’ He didn’t say anything. ‘I’m afraid you did make a mistake. Instead of giving me a $20 discount and charging me $629, you gave me a $629 discount and charged me $20.’

A sharp breath at the other end. ‘Oh God. I am going to get fired.’ I felt a lurch in my gut.

‘What can I do?’

‘Can you come back in?’

‘Sure, are you in tomorrow?’

‘No, I mean now.’

‘I can’t now.’ He sounded really panicky. I regretted not turning back when I had the chance. I could have met the others at the theatre, foregone my swim. I could have been more generous.

‘Let me speak to your manager, I can explain there were two discounts, my card and the special discount. That it was really busy, that I made a mistake with my PIN and you had to put it all through again. This heat, you know.’

‘NO. No. Do not do that. Can we keep this between us? Please?’

 

We agreed I would go in sometime on Monday afternoon. I left him my mobile and work numbers and as I spoke the digits, arranged the date, asked for the times of his shift, he thanked me again and again. ‘You really saved me.’

But I hadn’t saved him yet.

The heat broke around 4 am and for the last few hours before dawn, we all slept soundly. Monday was cooler still, which was just as well as students were arriving for the start of term at the university where I taught English Lit. I had a lot to do. Tedious things like printing and stapling info packs and thinking up what to say about myself to the students at the staff introductions. I locked my handbag in my desk drawer and left for class.

It was late in the afternoon before I was finally back at my desk. There was a red light on my landline, which meant voicemail messages and, when I switched on my mobile, a red number told me there were more messages there too. I didn’t bother checking them – they were all from the same number. I picked up my bag and hurried to meet him.

 

The Swanston Street tram was full of young people. Some on their way home from work, but most students finishing their first day of classes. I imagined Albert among them, sifting through the events of his day. He would be their age.

I rode the escalators up to the top of the store, leaning against the handrail. I still had the bike ride home to my own family, time to cook dinner, some reading before bed. I shifted to the right and climbed up the escalator stairs as they glided upward to the top floor and the computer department.

In one corner, beneath the big post office tower clock, a deep couch was turned toward the view. I could just see Albert’s hair. I was about to call his name when he stood up, folding the remains of his fast food lunch into a paper bag. A slight young man, no more than five foot seven, the hair rising along his neck in a supple plume. Brown eyes warm with relief.

He led me to a register in a quieter section, away from the other staff, where we huddled together, our heads bent over the credit card machine, speaking in low voices.

I handed him the receipt and he checked it carefully, face bent to the paper. His eyes were framed with fine lines and the skin around his chin pleated into folds. I had made a mistake thinking him young. What would a clerk here make an hour? He held the receipt up so I could see it, his slender fingers pointing out the relevant numbers. ‘You need to pay $609.’

I frowned. $609 dollars! Was it too late to return it? He held out his hand for my credit card. I handed it over without a murmur, already resenting the stupid gadget. He held the new receipt flat for me to sign, then stapled it to the old one and handed them to me. I squashed them into my bag.

‘I owe you big time.’ His voice was even softer now, more secret.

’You don’t owe me anything.’

 

Gliding down the escalators, floor after floor, I felt dissatisfied with the whole encounter. It stung that I’d paid $629 for a shiny piece of ephemera just because I was too hot. The clerk’s excessive gratitude embarrassed me. I wanted to get away from the store and never come back.

 At the foot of the escalator, a display of black and jade green lacquer boxes caught my eye. I stopped and picked one up. The surface made a satisfying click beneath my nails, a sound that brought back the Japanese gallery on that hot afternoon when I had stopped to watch the tea ceremony.

‘Drinking tea with another,’ the apprentice had said, ‘allows contemplation of one’s true nature.’ I saw my life set out on its neat tray. Modest accomplishments, small successes, lovely objects. Everything was polished until it was slippery, too slippery for any mark to stick. I found it so hard to let go of that $20 tablet. I thought of the tea master, sliding across those polished floors in an ersatz teahouse in the middle of the white gallery on a hot Melbourne day.

I turned over the lacquered box to look at the price. It was very expensive for such a small object. Small enough to fit neatly into a pocket. So small that nobody would even notice the bulge. I checked: no-one was watching.

I turned to the escalator and rode all the way to the bottom before walking through the open doors and out onto the street.

 

 

 

 

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Michelle Aung Thin was born in Burma, raised in Canada and writes about negotiating hybrid identity. Her novel, The Monsoon Bride (Text), is about the Anglo-Burmese in colonial Burma. Her current project crosses contemporary Yangon with historical Rangoon (funded by Asialink, Creative Victoria, Australia Council and Canada Council). She is also working on a book about Rohingya displacement. Michelle teaches at RMIT University.

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