Excerpt of The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam
(Page 6 of 8)
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Your signature here, Headmaster Chen, said the younger man
from Saigon, offering a receipt for signature and the envelope.
I will read it later, said Percival, ignoring the receipt as he took the
manila envelope. Thank you, brothers. I will send it back by courier.
He put it down on the table. They did not budge. Why should you wait
for this? You are important, busy men. Police officers, of course.
They did not say otherwise. The older man said, Sign now. Of
course, they were the quiet police. Below the balcony, Percival glimpsed
some of the schools students having their breakfast in the square. Some
squatted next to the noodle sellers. Others ate baguette sandwiches as
they walked. Percival was relieved to see Teacher Mak coming toward
the school. Foong Jie would send Mak up as soon as he arrived.
Percival tore open the envelope, slipped out a document from the
Ministry of Education in Saigon, and struggled through the text. He
was less fluent in this language than in English, but he could work out
the meaning. The special memorandum was addressed to all headmasters,
and outlined a new regulation. Vietnamese language instruction
must be included in the curriculum of all schools, effective immediately.
You rich Chinese always have a nice view, said the older man,
looking out over the square. He helped himself to a piece of papaya. Dai
Jai offered a napkin, but the officer ignored him and wiped his fingers
on the tablecloth.
The younger one thrust the receipt at Percival again. Sign here.
Isnt that church the one . . .
It is. Percival peered at the paper and selected an expression of
slight confusion, as if he were a little slow. Thank you, brothers, thank
you. He did not say big brothers, in the manner that one usually spoke
to officials and police, or little brothers, as age and position might allow
a headmaster. He made a show of re- reading the paper. But I wonder if
there is a mistake in this document coming to me. This is not a school.
This is an English academy, and it falls under the jurisdiction of the
Department of Language Institutes.
The older one bristled. There is no mistake. You are on the list.
Ah, perhaps the Department of Language Institutes did not review
this directive. I would be surprised if Director Phuong has approved
this. Mak must be downstairs by now. Percival could easily delay until
he made his way up.
Director Phuong? laughed the younger officer.
My good friend Director Phuong, smiled Percival. He was Hakka,
his name was Fung, though he had come to Vietnam as a child and used
the name Phuong. Each New Year, Percival was mindful to provide him
with a sufficient gift.
The older one said, You mean the former director. He recently had
an unfortunate accident.
He is on sick leave, then? Well, I will take up this matter when he
He will not return. The older man from Saigon grinned. Between
you and me, some say he gave too many favors to his Chinese
friends here in Cholon, but we didnt come to gossip. We just need
Percival stared at the memorandum. He was not reading. Just a little
longer, he thought. Now he heard sure steps on the stairs, familiar feet
in no hurry. Mak appeared on the balcony, nodded to Percival, who
handed the papers to him. Mak glanced at the visitors and began to read
the document. The teacher was thin, but compact rather than reedy,
a little shorter than Percival. While some small men were twitchy and
nervous, Mak moved with the calm of one who had folded all his emotions
neatly within himself, his impulses contained and hidden. For
years he had worn the same round, wire- rimmed glasses. The metal
of the left arm was dull where he now gripped it to adjust the glasses
precisely on his nose.
Excerpted from The Headmaster's Wager
by Vincent Lam. Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Lam.
Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.