Chapter sixteen: The auction house
The pots are bubbling happily in the kitchen of Shiwaso, the sound offset only by the repetitive tapping of knives on a chopping board.
Yobu is making wild mushroom soup, one of my favourites.
I stand in the door opening, enjoying the smell and looking for the words.
“Something the matter Hui?” he asks me without looking.
I cross my arms “Yobu can I maybe leave the restaurant early today?”
The knife halts mid-cut, and the old man looks at me with raised eyebrows “It’s unlike you to ask for time off, normally I have to kick you out at the end of the day.”
“I know but there’s something I must do first.”
“May I ask what?”
“Oh, I see.” His voice takes up a conspiratory tone for some reason.
“Well in that case that’s all right then.” He smiles and adds “But you’re finishing your daily tasks before leaving. Himowa won’t like it if you make her wind up for your work.”
“Of course.” I bow in gratitude and head to the storage room.
I do my tasks with record speed, feeling one step closer to saving the restaurant with each job to check off my list.
By the time I put on my coat I feel like I’m glowing.
“Are you going out?” Himowa asks behind me and my shoulders jump up in shock.
Not sure how to explain I simply rush out before she has a chance to stop me.
She calls my name, but I keep going.
On to the auction house.
Sometimes you only realize how scary something is when it’s too late to turn back.
The auction house is this huge building made of white stone and glass pillars, huge colourful windows and leaves made of gold. It looks out of place amidst the wooden shops and stalls that surround it. Utterly alien and imposing.
And I’m supposed to just…walk in.
I check my bag again for the letter, I stroke my chest to feel the pin sitting securely against my chest.
All right then.
I take one last deep breath, and head inside.
I push the door, it’s heavier than expected.
Inside, the large windows cast multicoloured beams of light into the room. Long queues of people wait in front of desks made of the same cloudy glass that I found back at Elizbeth’s house. The strangeness of the place makes me feel like I’m intruding.
I don’t belong here, this isn’t my world.
But there’s too much at stake to chicken out now.
I wonder if it matters which cue I enter but I don’t see any signs to differentiate so in the end I just pick the shortest cue and wait.
The people behind the desks wear Cygnian suits cut at strange angles and sporting patterns of shells and leaves. The people queuing in line are a hotpot of different classes and nationalities. I didn’t even know we had this many foreigners living in this place.
Some of them are dressed like soldiers.
I once again hope I’m in the right cue.
What if Elizabeth is wrong and this isn’t an auction house at all? Or what if it is, but they don’t serve people like me?
I check the time by the massive clock hanging in the high curved ceiling of the building.
Only three minutes have passed.
Standing here the time passes slow, five minutes feel like an eternity.
What if they close up before I had a chance to talk to anyone? How long does this place stay open anyway? If I miss my chance now I’ll have to ask Yobu for time off again, I doubt he’ll just say ‘yes’ two times in a row without making me reveal why.
And maybe then he’s opposed to the idea entirely.
It just needs to work now.
It takes the row more than an hour to dissipate but eventually the person in front of me leaves her trinket to the clerk who walks it to a safer place while the man behind the desk calls “next”
I step forward and hand the man the letter.
He takes it with a surprised expression. Then unfurls the ribbon and starts to read.
People are staring at me.
They quickly divert their attention when I look at them, pretending that they weren’t but it’s far too obvious to miss.
Everyone’s wondering what the street dog is doing in the auction house holding an official-looking document.
The man behind the desk puts on a set set of strange spectacles with rows of exchangeable lenses.
He peers intently at the letter, examining the signature.
Then after a long suffocating pause, his eyes appear above the paper and he says “Very well lad, show me the piece.”
I open my coat and pull the pin from the lining with only moderate fussing. Then I put it down on the table.
The man puts on a set of silk gloves and picks it up. With a rattle, he changes the lens and the eye behind it triples in size.
He mutters under his breath while jotting down things in a notebook.
I wonder what he’s saying but I don’t understand it, I wonder what he’s writing but I can’t read it.
Meanwhile, the sneaking onlookers are having a harder and harder time pretending not to look.
“The little miss has done her homework, I can give her that.” He then takes off the spectacles “we can start bidding at eight hundred chui. We got some room to spare at the jewellery auction on the 26th, will the little miss be present?”
“I don’t know?” I expected the thing to be sold straight away.
“I see” The man then tugs at a roll of paper mounted on his desk and slices off a piece. He then produces a metal-tipped pen and starts to write in a strange rounded script. I wonder how they distinguish each letter from the next, they all look like circles to me. He then gently blows on the text to dry the ink and wraps it around the stick Elizabeth’s letter came in but tying on a ribbon of his own, a green one this time.
“Give this to the little miss, I’d like to give her her winnings in person.”
I nod and the man rings a bell for the clerk to come and take the pin away.
My hands want to snatch the pin back out of fear I won’t get it back.
Then have to remind myself that’s the entire point.
It feels oddly melancholy.
The man then wishes me a good day and signals to the door.
As I walk away I can hear the man shout “Next.”
Once outside the letter feels heavy in my hand, the 26th is more than a week from now. Is this how it usually goes? A pawn shop is much quicker, but then I guess the rich can wait for money they don’t desperately need right now.
I’ll give Elizabeth the letter after the next lesson.
I put the letter in my sleeve for safekeeping.
For now, I’d say mission accomplished.
The next day I almost skip to work feeling confident everything is going to be okay from now on.
“Good morning Hui, I hope yesterday has been fruitful.” The old man has a cunning smile and I have no idea what he’s thinking I did but I simply nod, wish him a good morning and get to work.
Himowa busts in an hour later, she greets us shortly, then puts on her apron and starts her chores.
“Actually how about a cup of tea first. It’s been a while.” Yobu asks and Himowa shrugs in reply, setting down the stepping stool and walking to the kettle instead.
There we sit with our steaming cups of oolong tea.
“I know the last couple of weeks have been hectic,” Yobu says and suddenly all eyes are on him. “I just wanted to say that I believe that as long as we stay together we’ll be able to get through everything.”
Himowa raises an eyebrow at Yobu and then smiles while she brings her cup to her lips “I know that.” She takes a sip “We’re a pretty amazing team.”
“Yeah.” I agree and we share a smile.
I dream gratefully into my cup. We needed this, a quiet moment.
Things have been too busy, too stressful lately.
“How’s the tea?” Yobu asks and I shrug. “Tastes like always?”
“Hui you barbarian.” Himowa chuckles “It’s the new brand isn’t it?”
“We have a new brand?” I look at the cup, I saw nothing on the ordering list about brand changes.
“It’s just a sample. One of the customers recommended it and it’s cheaper than Sai so I figured; why not give it a shot?”
I take another sip “Nope still tastes like tea.”
“I think it’s a bit more rounded in comparison to the old tea, but I still like it.
“Then we’ll keep it for now and see if the customers say anything about it.” He then empties the pot into our cups and heads over to the sink.
“I’m getting started on preparations, you kids take all the time you need.”
“Right,” I say taking another gulp. I’m wondering if Himowa is making up words to mess with me, how can tea be round?
“Are you going to tell me where you ran off to yesterday?” Himowa asks, I’m almost surprised she waited this long to ask.
“Not yet, later maybe.”
“All right.” Her eyes drift to the teacup in her hand.
And then it’s silent.
I’m surprised she’s not pushing me, maybe she can feel how much I don’t want to talk about it.
Not yet, not while the balls are still in the air, so much could go wrong still. I’d hate to bring her hopes up only to dash them later on.
“Sooo…killed many people as of late?” Himowa asks and I almost choke on my tea in response.
“What!? No, never.” Is, is that what she thinks I left early for yesterday?
She blinks at me then lowers her cup again and whispers “I mean in your head, the customers and the like?”
“Oh! Right.” I chuckle awkwardly at my own silliness “Actually now that you ask there’s this one guy and he pisses me off and I can’t even figure out why!?”
She smiles as she puts the cup to her lips “Go on.”