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A surprise twist.
Idly I wondered aloud what the large calligraphic characters on the window meant.
"I don't speak Cantonese, only Mandarin, but the characters are the same for both. It says Dragon of good fortune - Lucky Dragon you might say. In China dragons are a symbol of good luck."
"What!" I exclaimed in astonishment. "You read and speak Chinese? How on earth did you learn it? Isn't it fearfully difficult?"
"Not if you're born there. My mother and father went there as Baptist missionaries as soon as they were married. My father's family were very well-to-do, and they were strongly against the whole project, but my parents were unshakeable.
I was born a couple of years after they got to China, and I was brought up by a succession of Chinese nurses, and by the time I was four I spoke Mandarin better than I spoke English.
Then my father took over my education. He overruled my mother and found me an old Confucian scholar who could teach me to read and write Chinese. When I got to England I realised what a good education I had been given. I was sent to Cheltenham Ladies' College, and I was years ahead of the other girls my age."
"Why did your parents send you back to England? Where did you go?"
I lived with my grandfather in his big house in Shropshire. There were just the two of us and the servants. After China it was a pale imitation of life.
They sent me back for two reasons. One, they wanted me to get a good education, and go to Cambridge like they did. Secondly, although I only realised it later, I think they knew that all-out war with Japan was coming and they wanted me to be safe."
Her eyes filled with tears, and, standing there in the street, I took her in my arms and she put her head on my shoulder and cried.
"They starved to death in the great famine," she sobbed. "The last correspondence I had with them was a flaming row about me refusing to got to university. I wrote such angry, hurtful things to them, and all the time they must have been slowly dying of starvation. I can never forgive myself..."
I must have made a spectacle of myself, patting her and murmuring sympathetic noises to a woman four inches taller and fifteen years older than I was. I called her a poor darling, hugging her and kissing her cheek as if she had been a four-year-old with a scraped knee.
I dried her tears with my hankie and kissed her wet cheeks. I had never kissed anyone but my mum and dad, but it felt so natural and so right.
"Thank you for being so kind. I don't know what came over me. It's all so long ago, but it just welled up in me. I'm so sorry for being so pathetic."
"You were not pathetic, you were hurting and all I wanted was to comfort you."
"If we go to Bishop street we can sit in the staff room and it will give me time to pull myself together. Would that be all right?"
I took her hand and squeezed it tight. I hoped that it conveyed that I would go with her to Siberia of she wanted me to.
I stayed with her until the reference library closed at seven. Readers drifted in and out, reading periodicals and checking reference books, but, all but a few, they knew what they were doing and needed no help. At around six thirty, a poorly dressed elderly man came in smelling a little the worse of drink.
I watched in awe as she explained to him how to decode the form of racehorses from the back pages of the evening paper. From the stacks somewhere, she pulled out a copy of Timeform and patiently explained how to use it.
She could not have been nicer or more thorough if he had been an important local businessman wanting trade statistics. I giggled as she gently detached his hand from her bottom without pausing in her explanation.
After he shuffled away to find a bookie's runner, we both looked at each other and bust out laughing.