Miss Coral gets up from her desk on a cool October afternoon. She walks over to the kettle and drains steaming liquid into a clear plastic flask, the tea leaves swirling within. Moon is crouched in the corner of the office, a small book of poems on her knees. ‘Dead Water’ by Wen Yiduo. She learns the lines, breathing out the words.
‘Time to go,’ says Miss Coral. ‘The Director can’t catch you here again.’ Her tiny frame and button bright face do not convey the threat she intends. Moon looks up. Her eyes, a little too far apart and as flat and smooth as her forehead, sit open and blank. She gets to her feet. She can’t have grown an inch since she got here, Miss Coral thinks.
Moon is a scholarship student, transferred from rural Wanzhou. To the Director’s surprise, she arrived in Chongqing by train, unaccompanied. She was standing on the platform, carrying her belongings in a bamboo basket strapped to her back with coloured rope. When the Director asked Moon why her parents did not bring her, she replied indirectly. They allowed her to take the train instead of the bus, she said, cutting through the mountains to cross the Golden River in four hours instead of six.
Though Moon has been at Number Three Middle School for two years, she remains the new girl. When she arrived, her grades in Chinese and mathematics were already exceptional, but she had no knowledge of English. Miss Coral was engaged to improve her until she reached the requisite level for her age. It was felt that once her skill set was complete she would fit in. She never did. One or two of the other students like to mock her country accent; the rest remain aloof. Moon doesn’t seem to mind. She neither seeks friendship nor denies it and wanders the extensive grounds of the school wearing a look of mild surprise, as though perpetually reliving her first day.
Their evening English lessons became the first of Miss Coral’s extracurricular duties. They met every day at six o’clock in the break between afternoon and evening classes. They waited for one another by the entrance to the school library. They chose always to sit at a table towards the back of the lower ground floor, far away from the computers and the teen fiction shelves and where few other students gathered. They leant over a new copy of English Now! and Miss Coral made frequent corrections to the textbook’s spelling and grammar with corrector fluid and a ballpoint pen. To make time for Moon, Miss Coral had to hand over one of her English Literature groups.