September 15th 2015: Substitute teachers
The Experiment
, by Matthew Harrison

The scarf was a fine gift but it was wasted on Billy Tse, or almost wasted. The thing really required someone with more imagination than that callow Hong Kong youth possessed.

I was in the classroom preparing for the first seminar of the New Year when I was interrupted by Billy’s muffled voice. Glancing up, I found him standing there, his face half-obscured by purple wool.

“Look, Mr Smiles,” he mumbled. “Isn’t it great?”

I looked again. A double length of tasselled purple ran down Billy’s chest, reaching almost to the floor. Then I realised what it was.

“For Christmas?” I asked.

He nodded. “My mother.”

I congratulated him. Billy unwound the scarf from his neck and carefully put it into his rucksack. Then he went to his desk at the back of the class.

The seminar happened to be on environmental radiation – a favourite topic of mine. I’m a physics lecturer at Wanchai University – well, substituting for the incumbent who had one or two problems with the authorities, but things are less formal here – and the emanations from the granite outcrops above the town give good scope for practical observation.

As I sorted my notes, I wondered why Billy had addressed me. He was a shy young man and usually didn’t speak much. The only time I had seen him take the initiative was to sidle up to a tall Beijing student, Mei-li, but she did not respond and he sidled back again.

When the other students came in, instead of ignoring Billy as they usually did, they sat at the desks around him. The girls seemed especially friendly. Again, I hadn’t seen this before.

The new mood continued as I began the seminar. Normally, it’s hard to get Hong Kong students to contribute. At school they’re trained to listen, to take notes, to nod with the teacher. But today the class was lively, and even Billy chipped in from time to time, I think on the environmental impact of radon.

The break came and most of the students left the room. Seeing Billy take out his scarf I started over to him.

Then came a sharp female voice: “Ron, just what is this about?”

I turned and found myself in the formidable presence of Carol Endsleigh, the Senior Librarian. My reactions to her are quite interesting, if I analyse them. On the one hand she recalls some fearsome school matron. On the other hand, she is generously built – which has a certain rarity value among the slender oriental forms here.

But this was a business call.  She doesn’t trust me because I’m a substitute, which I suppose is reasonable. “Your list,” she said, brandishing a form at me. It was my book requisitions; I groaned inwardly. They expect us to do everything on-line nowadays, but we still need books – and what is a library for, for goodness sake?

I was about to defend my precious list, when a curious noise arose from the back of the classroom.

It was like nothing so much as the cooing of pigeons, if pigeons could coo in Cantonese. I know some of the local language, and it was exclamations like, “How lovely!” “How cute!” “So smooth!” “I do love wool!” – interspersed with delighted cries. And all coming from a group of jostling female students.

Girls!” Ms Endsleigh called out in a matronly tone.

The classroom resounded to her voice, but the students jostled and cooed as before.

Ms Endsleigh was not used to being ignored. With a frown she started forward. Then the crowd of girls parted to reveal a tangle of purple, with a dazed Billy in the centre of it all.

Ms Endsleigh froze – already something noteworthy in that redoubtable lady. But just at that moment the bell rang for the resumption of class. The boys reappeared, loudly reclaiming their desks. The girls sheepishly went back to their proper places. And Billy was left clutching the scarf, which he stuffed hurriedly into his rucksack.

Ms Endsleigh recovered and marched out of the room, my requisition form forgotten.

#

This incident set my mind working. Was it the scarf that attracted the girls? Did it give out some special scent or emanation? I had half a dozen hypotheses, but Billy was ahead of me.

At my next seminar, he again came in early and approached me, serious-faced. He seemed to think that as a foreigner I had some special wisdom (we are rather spoilt like that in Hong Kong). And he told me what had happened.

After the cooing episode, Billy was expecting the female students to approach him again at lunchtime. But they just ignored him as they usually did. That prompted him to conduct an experiment. He chose a spot in the forecourt not far from a staircase, so that if necessary he could escape. Then he took the scarf out of his rucksack and put it on.

“Impressive!” I couldn’t help saying. “The repeatability of results.” For is that not the essence of the scientific method?

As for the outcome of the experiment, I could imagine it only too well. There would have been many students hanging about in the forecourt, together with a fair sprinkling of lecturers, visiting scholars and other refugees from the international academic system, Hong Kong being kind to those who have failed elsewhere. Roughly half of this human flotsam would have been female. When Billy put on the scarf, random movements became suddenly ordered – female heads turned, conversations with less interesting males stopped, eyes fell on Billy. And the females all began moving towards him, walking at first, then starting to run.

“I was almost too late,” Billy grinned ruefully. “The zip stuck!”

As he fumbled, the nearest female hands were already tugging at his clothes. Just in time, he freed the zip and packed the scarf away. And immediately the female interest waned. The girls who had touched him apologised and walked embarrassedly away.

You can imagine my interest in this. It seemed that the scarf embodied an entirely new physical phenomenon – an attractive emanation that was nonetheless blocked by the fabric of the rucksack. Or was it some hypnotic pattern in the weave of the scarf itself? And how did Billy’s mother come by it? But there was no time to enquire, the other students were coming in.

In the break Billy went out, with a purposeful expression. Determined not to miss science in the making, I followed a discreet distance behind.
I caught sight of Billy near the ladies washroom, and hid behind a convenient pillar. From there, I saw him open his rucksack, take out the scarf and wind it round his neck. He was just in time, for out of the washroom door a girl emerged.

She turned to Billy at once, as a dog turns to the source of a scent. She dashed up to him, and caught hold of the scarf. Billy’s expression changed from a scientist’s satisfaction to something bordering on horror. He squirmed – and that just seemed to inflame the girl even more for now she flung her arms around Billy’s neck, which was of course swathed in purple wool.

Billy tried to fend her off, at first gingerly, and then with increasing desperation. Perhaps he had never been so close to a girl before. If so, he was getting his initiation now. Then the bell rang.

Immediately the mood changed. The girl released Billy, though not without patting the scarf once or twice, and hurried off.   I went back to my classroom. The young man himself appeared a few minutes later, looking rather the worse for wear.

#

To his credit, Billy was persistent. The next step, he told me later, was to put the scarf to the supreme test – whether it would attract someone whose affection he really valued. And that would be a greater challenge than perhaps he realised, since unlike Hong Kong girls, a Beijinger would have been exposed to many scarves in those cold northern winters. If anyone was immune to the scarf’s emanations, it would be Mei-li.

Billy’s chief difficulty was finding an opportunity in the crowded confines of the university to encounter his intended alone. He hung around outside the science labs hoping that Mei-li would pass by. Once she did so, and he unzipped his rucksack, but then another girl appeared and he hurriedly had to zip it up again.

Nor did Billy have unlimited time. Hong Kong winters, if they deserve the name, are particularly short; a scarf cannot be worn for long. And so Billy hit upon a novel scheme.

He had studied Mei-li’s acquaintances among the other students, and he must have disguised himself electronically as one of them, asking to meet in a remote part of the campus. I think he invented some secret distress which touched the girl’s heart. This might not have been strictly ethical, but a scientist answers to a higher law.

At the agreed time, Billy waited at the appointed spot. Mei-li was not punctual, and poor Billy sweated it out in his scarf. Whenever another female came into view he had to duck behind a tree to avoid complications.

After what seemed to Billy an interminable time, but was probably only ten minutes or so, Mei-li came rushing up. She looked around for her friend, showing no interest in Billy. What did he have to do to make her look at him and the scarf?

Taking his courage in his hands, Billy stepped into Mei-li’s path, and dramatically unwound the scarf from his face. Yet with barely a glance at him, Mei-li kept looking for her friend. Billy tried swinging the scarf around. But Mei-li seemed impervious to its tasselled charm.

Perhaps it was the warmth of the Hong Kong spring, perhaps it was a Beijinger’s extensive exposure to scarves. But Billy knew only that his plan was failing. In a last desperate effort to win her, he looped the scarf over her head and caught her around the middle.

Mei-li was not only not won, but actually screamed. Billy’s careful plan was turning into a disaster. And worse was to come.

“What are you doing, young man?” came a penetrating female voice.

Billy turned. It was Ms Endsleigh – and she had witnessed the whole thing!

“I – I –” Billy began.   He was in despair, for he had not only lost the girl but also disgraced himself in full view of the authorities.

Then came what Billy afterwards described as a miracle, although I would favour a more scientific explanation.

“He was just showing me his scarf,” came a calmer, softer voice.

Billy looked round in astonishment. It was Mei-li!

He found out later that she didn’t like the librarian. Although at that point she didn’t like Billy, Mei-li liked Ms Endsleigh even less. So she rescued him.

Ms Endsleigh retreated, muttering. And the two young people quickly came to terms with each other. Apologising, Billy explained frankly what he had been about, maintaining that he had been driven to such extremes by her beauty. Mei-li laughed, and said she had never heard such nonsense. She was rather jolly about it – perhaps flattered that someone had invented an entire scarf story for her sake.

That was how Billy got his first girlfriend. Soon after that, he told me the whole thing. And he concluded by handing me the scarf. “I don’t want it, and I don’t know who to give it to,” he said. So I was left holding that remarkable length of tasselled wool.

The experiment over, the student passed the equipment back to the teacher. That, presumably, was how Billy saw it. But I saw it differently. To me, the experiment was just beginning – the boy was handing over to the man. Science has its demands, and we must serve.

Ms Endsleigh is coming round to my office to discuss the budget this afternoon. I have turned the air-conditioning on full so that it is almost wintry in here. And I have disconnected the classroom bell…

*

Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong. Visit Matthew at MatthewHarrison.hk


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    Recent Comments:
  • Ruth Livingstone: A great story. Set in a complex world, rich and full of detail, presented beautifullly. And an...
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