Clara Chow

Entry #2


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Tuesdays, two to four o’clock

  • Library hours. I am at the Mount Beauty branch, connecting to its wifi network, frantically getting my internet fix for the week (Bogong Village is not, as they used to say in the old days, “wired up” to “cyberspace”). As I download bytes of social media like crack, I hear two ladies’ chatting away at the next table.

  • Then: the familiar clack of tiles.

  • Like a diver struggling back to the surface, I pull myself back from the ether. Out of the corner of my left eye, I see four ‘walls’ built on the table, a square formation. A picnic mat on the table to dampen the sound of ‘washing the cards’.

  • “Excuse me?” I say. “Are you playing mahjong?”

  • The two ladies, radiant in woolly jumpers, say: “Yes! Do you know how to play?”

  • I say I do, but badly. As I sit down to join their game – turning it from a duet into a san que yi, or trio- missing-one, as the Chinese call it; normally, four players are required – I reiterate that I’m a horrible amateur. My speciality? The chicken game, or ji hu: a lousy, low-paying victory that earns you derision in a gambling den.

  • Aw, it’s just for fun; we don’t even keep score, the ladies say. “It’s just to keep the brain ticking,” says one. Their names are Marie and Wendy. Marie has glasses, a pixie cut and a beautiful smile. Wendy, a cloud of grey-white hair framing her face, is a vision in undulating blue knit.

  • We play.

  • Wendy and Marie describe the tiles they discard, courteously, as they place each gently on the table: Two circles. Four characters. Eight bamboo. Back in my home, we just tossed tiles in the centre and expected opponents to pay attention. If we were particularly fed-up with the tile we drew, we slammed it down with a loud bang; maybe an expletive (not recommended). When Wendy gets a tile that sucks, she talks to it: “I hate you! I hate you!” And then we laugh.

  • “I win!” I say.

  • Marie and Wendy, slightly surprised that I’ve won this fast, tally up the score. I get 64 points. This sounds decent to me, until Wendy shows me her hand and says it’s worth 2,000 (reduced to 400, even though I won, because she was already fishing for her last tile). Marie’s is worth 1,000, had she won.

  • “It’s not like we’re playing for big bucks,” they joke, when I apologise for wasting their time with my measly score.

  • We wash the tiles again.

  • “This is my favourite part,” I say.

  • “Mine, too,” says Wendy.

  • “It sounds like the twittering of birds,” says Marie. “Or rain,” I say.

  • We build the wall and draw our tiles. This time, I open the instruction book and flash cards my opponents have on hand, and try to win with a more respectable hand. The White Opal, I decide: All bamboo pungs, three red dragons, and three white dragons.

  • Circles. Characters. Green dragons. East winds. West winds. North winds. South winds. Anything but the tiles I need.

  • The wall is worn down, picked to bits by the three of us. Just when we think the game is going to end without a winner, Wendy picks up the last tile and says: “Mahjong!”
    It’s worth double or triple or something, because, when you win with the last tile, that’s called Moon at the Bottom of the Well. Or something. I think. Who makes up these crazy names? But I love it anyway. I’m going to do this the next time I play with my relatives at Chinese New Year; call out pseudo-Oriental made-up names for the lousy chicken hands I get. It’s a gas. But Wendy and Marie are serious and studious about the game. They’ve both been playing it at least once a week for years.

  • “It’s a truly international game, isn’t it?” says Wendy.

  • I entertain them by telling them about the mahjong tables in Asia, with the built-in drawers. When the game is over, each player digs into their own drawer and flings cash or chips around, settling debts on the spot. I tell them that people chuck peanut shells at me when I win with my chicken hands.

  • We play some more.

  • Wendy wins twice, and Marie wins twice. They achieve victory with hands called “The Windy Chows” or “The Breathless Dragon”. I just try not to embarrass myself with more stupid sets. Once, I throw out three circles while Marie is already fishing, and, without batting an eyelid, she says: “That’ll do.” If we were playing for money, I would be cleaned out.

  • “Okay, hustlers,” I say. “Last game for me.”

  • We play.

  • Marie wins again. It’s four o’clock. Time for them to go home.

  • We pack up, piling the tiles back into their deep red box.

  • “We play every Tuesdays, two to four o’clock,” says Marie. “So you’re free to join us if you’re here again.”

  • “I leave this Sunday,” I say, with a pang.

  • Warm hugs. Goodbye. They breeze out of the library, waving to Audrey the librarian. I never knew that my laughable mahjong skills would come in handy in Australia. But, if the four winds blow me back here again, I’d make up one corner of these incomparable ladies’ table any time.