Ned had always done the right thing by everyone. He was a regular good guy and liked to think everyone else thought so too. Even as kid, he had never been any trouble to his parents or teachers.
“He’s a great guy, Ned,” they used to say, smiling at him and patting him on the back or ruffling up his hair affectionately, “always willing, polite, studious, a model pupil, a model son.”
He was comfortable with that. It was good to be respected, admired. Learning had always come easy and he had passed all his grades and gone to the local college and done pretty well for himself. Good at sports, handsome, kind, he was a winner with the girls as well. Ned had it all. Life was just too easy.
You would expect such a paragon of all the virtues to have enemies. However, that didn’t seem to be the case. People found him attractive and generally took to him with warmth. When he was about twenty five and had found himself a solid, secure, well paid job in San Francisco, he looked around for a nice little apartment in the area of Fisherman’s Wharf and settled himself in. He seemed a blessed and happy man.
Yet the odd thing is, he wasn’t at all happy. Something was missing in his life and he had no idea why or what to do about it. All he knew was that deep inside him was a huge empty space that no amount of comfort, security, sex or material object could ever satisfy.
In the typing pool downstairs was a really pretty girl called Tanya Kalanovska. Her parents had been Russian émigrés, and she liked to make out that she had some real aristocratic blood in her veins. None of the men at Gernsteen’s much cared what colour her blood was; as far as they were concerned, she looked dark, dramatic and highly desirable. Her figure curved in all the right places and she was well aware of her charms and when that slow smile spread over her features and she looked at a guy with that slight sideways look, the man in question was bowled over, ready to be walked on by those dainty high heeled shoes.
When Tanya Kalanovska wanted a man she got him. When Ned Mason wanted a girl he got her. So when Tanya was promoted to the position of Ned’s secretary, everyone expected that the pair would get on like a house on fire. The two best looking people in the organisation!
Tanya was quite sure that Ned would fall madly in love with her and felt that he wasn’t so bad looking himself. He was slim, fair, tall, and smart and earned a very good salary at Gernsteen’s. People said he was a rising star and would make it to the Board one day. As she tapped away at her Underwood typewriter and took a pleasure in her lovely polished nails, she would look up from time to time at Ned seated opposite her at his desk and felt that maybe it was time she settled down now; she had played the field for some time and was rather tired of it all. She wanted some security, wanted a nice home and some kids. Yes, all in all, Ned Mason would do very well.
But Ned Mason didn’t take the bait. No matter how sexily she looked at him when their glances met across the room, he seemed to ignore her, except to ask her to take down such and such a letter. No matter how much she leaned gently over his desk to point something out in a letter, leaned so that just a little glimpse of her ample bosom would show and make his mouth go dry with lust and longing, he seemed as if unaware of her. She could have been the ugliest old spinster in the typing pool for all he cared.
Tanya was deeply annoyed by this. She had never ever had a failure in her life. How was it that this stupid man treated her as if she was a piece of the office furniture…how dare he? She, Tanya Kalanovska, the girl with the Russian blue blood in her veins!
She tried the jealousy angle, tried flirting in a very obvious manner with Fred Sennett who worked in the office next to theirs. The door between the offices was generally open and Fred made a point of popping in whenever he could, totally smitten by the luscious Tanya. Her apparent interest in him, made him desperate and full of longing. But Fred had a wife back home and that wife was a mean lady when she got jealous. He didn’t dare get too involved with Tanya for he knew that the office gossip would soon come to his wife’s ears in some way. You could never hide anything at Gernsteen’s. There was a sisterhood existing there where every woman knew exactly what the other was up to and made sure the world knew it too. These women jostled for position and favours from all the bosses but no one challenged Tanya first rights. They just took her leftovers, knowing they weren’t in her class and simply admired, envied and even emulated her style. But they kept a beady eye on her and on their own boyfriends and husbands whenever she was about and made sure that they protected their own. If Fred dared try it on with her, however small his offence, they’d buzz the news round the offices by bush telegraph and in some strange way that would find it’s way to his Suzy and she would roast him slowly for weeks.
What the hell, Fred wondered, was up with that Ned Mason? He could see what was going on in there. Knew too that Tanya’s coy glances were meant to be noticed by Ned and that he, Fred Sennet, was nothing but the bait. Ned must be made of steel. Those brown eyes would surely have melted any man who looked into them. But Ned seemed obdurate, absorbed in his work, hunched over his desk for hours, staying in the office late at night. Was promotion all he cared about? The man was mad. He was single, Tanya was single. They were meant for each other, surely?
As Fred was driving home down Van Ness Avenue one night, he debated the idea of somehow getting Ned to wake up and take notice of Tanya. That girl was too dangerous for his peace of mind and maybe if she was married to Ned, the men in the office, envious as they might be, would feel a heck of a sight safer. He had peeped in that afternoon and seen Tanya moodily hitting away at the keys of her typewriter, glancing up occasionally at her boss, her lower lip pouting. Ned as always was deep in furrowed thought over his papers and ledgers and files. Yet, to Fred’s astute eye, he wasn’t actually looking at them but through them. His mind was elsewhere, his heart wasn’t in the job or anything much else.
Fred turned down into California Street now and began the precipitous descent towards Embarcadero. He lived in Sausalito and had a ferry to catch to take him over to the island and he didn’t want to miss it. As he passed Nob Hill he absent-mindedly looked over and saw someone get off a cable car and run like hell to the pavement, dodging the traffic. It was Ned Mason for sure! How odd! He saw him heading for Grace Cathedral and idly wondered what Ned was doing down this way when he lived over by the Wharf. Perhaps he already had a girlfriend he thought. Maybe that was the trouble, maybe they were going through a hard patch or something and it was bothering him. Ah, youngsters! They were all the same. Why didn’t the man get married and not have all those worries! It was always a good feeling to think he was going home to his Suzy and that she would be there with the kids to greet him. Good feeling. Not all the gorgeous Tanyas in the world would take him away from that.
Fred couldn’t resist teasing Ned the next day.
“Hey, buddy,” he said,” saw you running like the cops was after you, diving for Grace Cathedral. You gettin’ religious or somethin’? Or maybe meeting a secret flame, eh?”
He looked at Tanya and winked. She looked up at once but her face was stony at his words. They both looked over at Ned.
“It’s none of you business,” said Ned shortly.
There was no trace of his customary half-smile on his face. He generally made even caustic comments with this little smile that disarmed people so that they didn’t know if he was being nice or not. But his face as he looked up from his work was angry and stern. Fred was surprised and frowned but shrugged and said no more.
However, as he drove home that night, almost by habit he glanced out as he slowed down by Nob Hill and to his surprise saw Ned jump off the Cable Car as he had done the night before. Same time, same place. This was odd.
Fred wasn’t a Gemini for nothing; he was most curious and made up his mind to follow Ned the next time, if there was a next time. Accordingly, he hung around his own office on pretext of work and watched Ned tidily stack his work in its files and folders, put on his coat and go out after he had said a perfunctory goodnight to Tanya who scarcely glanced at him, so great was her disgust with her boss. Fred seized his own coat and followed Ned from the building, trying his best to seem inconspicuous. He needn’t have worried; Ned was oblivious to all but his mission. Fred followed the young man to the corner of Van Ness where they would catch the Cable Car down California Street. Soon the bell could be heard clanging cheerfully, the trolley rattling as it approached them down the hill. He let Ned get on first and hid himself with ease amongst the crowd of people getting on the car. Then as he expected, off jumped Ned at Grace Cathedral and Fred, risking life and limb did the same, wending his way through the traffic to the pavement.
Ned went striding on ahead. His air was purposeful, his face suddenly alight with anticipation and pleasure. Fred saw a rather attractive girl standing by the Cathedral and nodded to himself. He had guessed it! But to his surprise, Ned walked on past the girl and made his way to a bench in the little park. There he sat himself down next to the scruffiest, oddest looking little Chinaman Fred had ever seen. The man had a wispy white beard, was dressed in dirty trousers, old sneakers and a sort of shiny Chinese jacket that had seen better days. The two of them greeted one another like old acquaintances and the Chinaman smiled a strange toothless smile that Fred found positively frightening. What the heck was the boy doing consorting with this nutty old guy? Fella looked like a tramp, probably was one. He saw Ned talking earnestly with the man and then he gave the man some money, what looked like a fair few dollars. Fred shook his head. Ned was being ripped off by this ole geezer. He’d have to do something.
He broached the subject the next day but made sure Tanya was out of the room. It might, after all, be a delicate matter.
“Say, Ned, it ain’t none of my business, buddy, but I sure was worried when I saw you meeting up with the ole tramp, yesterday. Has he got some hold over you?”
Ned stared at the older man.
"You saying you followed me?”
“Sure, don’t take it wrong though. I wasn’t like spying…I was worried about you. Like you seem so distracted, bothered lately. Is this old guy blackmailing you or somethin’?”
“Of course not! What gave you that dumb idea?” Ned was really quite angry and Fred was surprised. This was a side of Ned he had never known or suspected.
“Sorry, buddy, sorry…don’t get all het up! Ain’t my business, I know that. I was jest worried.”
Ned relented at the older man’s sincerity.
“Look, I’ll explain,” he said after a few minutes thought, “guess it does seem a little odd. I just didn’t want to talk about it; folks don’t understand these things, ‘specially here at Gernsteen’s, you know how it is.”
He paused and looked earnestly at Fred, “But I trust you, Fred. You’ll keep your mouth shut? Okay. Anyway, I met Mr. Weng when I was walking the labyrinth in the Cathedral. You know…the labyrinth? It’s as you come into the Cathedral. It’s like a special design on the floor that set out in four quarters and you enter it like it was a roadway and walk around till you come to the Centre. It twists and it turns and it seems to lead you round and round in circles. But in the end you get there. You get to the centre. On the way you meet people coming back or people might pass you, or you pass them. It’s like life, see?”
“Right,” said Fred but he didn’t sound too sure.
“It’s brilliant, Fred, “said Ned enthusiastically, “it’s just like the journey of life and it shows that we do have a goal to aim for. It shows we go through many lives and keep starting the journey again. I met Mr. Weng passing me on the labyrinth road. He’s a real wise guy…don’t look at his scruffy clothes. He’s taught me all about it, taught me about heaps of things, Tao and all that as well.”
“But why you giving the guy money? You could buy a wise book at that rate.”
“The money was for the Tai Chi classes. He says his granddaughter gives them and would I like to join them?”
“What the hell’s tightchy?”
“It’s like movements, slow, deliberate movements. They like calm you down, make you co-ordinate your mind and body and emotions and stuff. It sounds great to me. I’m gonna try it. Mr Weng says I’ll like his granddaughter, says she’s a real good teacher.”
Yeh, I’ll bet, thought Fred,worried. More likely she’s a prostitute and will pick you clean as whistle. You’ll learn plenty about co-ordinated movement from her all right. Boy you’re green!
But he said nothing. After all, it wasn’t his business. However, the more he thought of it the more he wanted to save young Ned from getting all mixed up with these Chinese crooks.
He took Tanya aside that morning and said, “Look, I want to help you with Ned. He’s a good lad. Maybe we can work it so he’ll really sit up and take notice of you. He’s had his mind on other things lately. He told me he really likes you though, he really does! And who can blame him?” Ned paused to chuck Tanya under her chin, his eyes lingering regretfully on her glorious bosom. He was being real noble to Ned, he really was! God what he wouldn’t do to have this girl in his arms! That boy was crazy, wanting to go off and see some Chinese whore. And he really believed she was going to teach him ..wotsit, tight something! Huh!
“I’m going to give him some work for tonight,” Fred went on,” some real important thing that just has to be done, and that I can’t get to do…pretend I have to be away or something’…, anyway, leave it to me. You say you’ll stay on and help get it all typed up and then…well, I leave that to you, girl. There’ll be no one else here ‘cept the nightwatchman. Get my drift?”
Tanya got his drift fine but so did Mary Wheeler who just happened to go by with a stack of files and caught the last few sentences. She hastened on to the other girls in the typing pool.
Ned was not at all amused about the work that Fred was dumping on him. He stared at it.
“But I’m going with Mr. Weng to meet May Lin tonight,” he complained, “I can’t let him down.”
“It’s doing me such a favour,” said Fred, “if you do this work, I just gotta go and see a client that’s real important tonight. You can explain to Mr. Weng another time. Surely you can go another night for the titchy...?”
Ned agreed reluctantly. He did not look happy. Fred began to have his doubts that his matchmaking scheme was ever going to work.
Later that afternoon, just as Fred was preparing to make his early exit, Tanya appeared at the door of his office and slammed the files down on his desk.
“What the hell!...”
“He just went out right now!” she said furious, her beautiful bosom heaving with anger, “and not so much as a bye, bye to me, the creep!”
“You mean, he left all this work!”
"Yeh, that’s just what I mean! Said he was fed up with always doing the right thing, being the good guy and he was off to see some ..somebody, some weird name.”
“Yeh, that was the name. Can you believe it? What’s got into the guy? I thought you said he cared about me?”
Suddenly the girl began to weep, her face in her hands, silent sobs racking her. Fascinated Fred watched her bosom rise and fall, her lovely eyes fill with tears. His heart went out to her and he got up and took her in his arms to comfort her and calm her down.
“Look, babe, look, it’s not that bad. God, you’re such a lovely girl, any man would die for you! Ned’s gone all religious and he’s as naïve as a new born babe. Gone down in my opinion, I can tell you!”
She stopped crying at last and he looked at the work on his desk. It really did have to go out tonight. What the hell was he going to do?
“Look, “he said awkwardly, “do you think you’d mind staying on to help me seeing as Ned has really gone and put me in the shit dumping this work back on me? I’ll just have to stay on and finish it.”
“Sure, I’ll help, I haven’t got a date,” the girl said morosely.
Fred rang Suzy and explained he had a job that really had to be finished that night. She sounded a bit odd but he took no notice of that. She had her days.
He and Tanya worked away at the contracts and paperwork, Fred cursing all the time under his breath. He’d so love to be on the ferry now, on the way to his home.
At last, the work was done, the last letter signed, stamped and stuck down. Fred heaved a sigh of relief.
All was silent in the building. Everyone had gone home and the quiet was almost oppressive. Tanya turned to Fred and her lip quivered just a little. She began unbuttoning her blouse, staring at him sideways with those brown, almond shaped eyes, her glance travelling over him slowly and sweetly. Fred lost his self control.
Ned walked down Chinatown with Mr. Weng and they climbed the stairs to an apartment over a tacky tourist shop full of Chinese lanterns, feng-shui items and other knick knacks. They entered into a small, almost bare room where about four or five people sat cross legged on the floor as if meditating. Pictures of Chinese Gods were on the wall and there was a beautiful white statue of Kwan-Yin on a table, Goddess of Love and Compassion. A sweet, small Chinese girl in black trousers and a blue satin jacket over the top came towards Ned and smiled up at him, bowing a little in greeting.
“Welcome Net. Welcome to our Tai Chi class.”