La La City
Images of afternoon news blink rhythmically at the pace of the speech of an experienced news anchor on the TV screen. His voice opens a tunnel across time and space, channeling the fragments from a place to another; and from the past and present into the future. Life is an inconceivably complicated jigsaw puzzle, perhaps forever unsolved with zillions of interlocking and reduplicated pieces.
Like all other weekends, Granny sits next to a small table in front of the TV, busily spooning adequate ingredients from a large plate of minced pork and shrimps, fleetly placing the portion on top of a wonton skin and nimbly wrapping it in perfect folds.
Hin tidies up his desk, grabs his guitar from the corner and strolls out of his room. “So what do we have for dinner tonight, Gran?” Hin greets granny routinely with the same question he asks every weekend.
“Wonton soup and noodles. You know, without your grandpa, I can work even faster. He just watched the news all day with no intention to help,” Granny grumbles as usual without pausing her work, “but you love to eat wonton, right?”
“My all-time favorite,” Hin replies cheerily. Wontons were his grandpa’s favorite food same as the news channel. Hin sometimes doesn’t understand why such practices continue even after Grandpa left years ago. Frankly he likes Sushi more.
Granny and Grandpa were not intimate to each other. But who really does? He can often hear arguments from other couples in the neighborhood over financial matters, kid-raising issues and some other trivialities. When Granny and Grandpa were in the kitchen together, there must be squabbles over what to cook, how to make a dish and how to clean the place. They rarely talked without ending in a fight. So most time, they did their own work at home in silence except the voice of the news anchor repeating the news over and over again.
Hin once asked Granny why she didn’t divorce Grandpa if they couldn’t get along with each other. Granny’s eyes widened in shock, which lifted her eyebrows and subsequently deepened the wrinkles on her forehead, “What kind of nonsense is that? I know my responsibility. I believe your Grandpa also knew his when he was here. I am not like your mum, leaving you and your dad easily. Stop asking silly questions.” Granny rubbed her forehead lightly, hoping to straighten her skin there but in vain. It was the first time Hin realized Granny was old.
Hin doesn’t have much feeling towards his mum as she left him when he was a toddler. Very occasionally, out of curiosity, he does wonder what she is doing. Yet, such a thought is like a flash of light, never settling in. He has been staying with Granny, and a few years ago, Grandpa too. He has long been used to his father’s voice on the phone and WeChat messages.
“You go out again? Don’t stay out too long. The dinner will be ready very soon. Plus, your dad will call back at 8 pm,” Granny reminds him.
“Okay. I’ll be back no later than 8 pm,” Hin smiles and winks at Granny when he latches the gate.
Outside his apartment, more audibly than in his cramped little room where he shares room with his father, who works in the mainland and is rarely at home, Hin can hear the clinging, clanging and clattering of the mahjong tiles hitting the tables, the dices being clanked in the hands first and then thrown on the tables, rolling around and bumping into the walls of those cheap plastic tiles.
Apparently to boost the boisterous atmosphere to its peak, the vibrant Korean, Japanese and Canto pop music from those hi-fis in farther end of his neighborhood blends its chic streaks into the classic traditional Chinese culture. Surely, one can never dismiss the orchestral importance of intermittent outcries by the mahjong players in such a weekend melody: “Aiyah, how can you throw this tile out?”, “Oh fuck! Where can you get the damn luck? You’ve won again!”, “Shit! I should’ve taken that damn tile,” and blah blah blah with more and more swear words, perhaps to vent out the bottled-up negativity over the exasperation they have towards life.
This is what living in a public housing estate is like. He knows he is much more fortunate than those kids in TV news programs who live in a partition flat where they poo, sleep and eat in an area of less than 100 square feet with a rent ten times more. He cannot complain. There are long queues awaiting the vacancies.
Still, compared with some of his classmates whose parents drive them to and from school in a Benz, he feels sulky. They must live in a spacious place with far better privacy.
Do these classmates look different from him? No, they are not better-looking than him. Nor are they more talented than hm. At least not in music, he has learnt to play guitar from those free YouTube videos. He is widely commended in his form for his skillful and flawless performance. These classmates are in the same classroom with him, using the same type of desks and chairs with shabby, wooden tops and rusty iron legs.
Yes, they are different from him. Except the same plain, old-fashioned uniform, they wear Tommy Hilfiger sweaters, MBT sneakers, and carry Adidas school bags. They attend private tutorials taught by professors from prestigious universities. They even once shared in class what they did to relax. They said they do yoga, play golf, or tennis. They draw, paint or take photos. They travel with families during holidays.
Hin adjusts the strap of his guitar’s bag tightly and feels the weight of the secondhand guitar right at his back. At ease, he ponders where he should go. Just a 15-minute walk would take him to the pedestrian zone in Mong Kok, which will soon be closed for any performance because of the complaints about noises. He doesn’t care though. Frankly, performing there is even worse than staying at home to listen to the medley from his neighborhood. He went there once but the music from his guitar was completely buried in the surging and foaming waves of the overly magnified noises of the surrounding buskers, most of whom perform for money. Hell! He might be fastidious but he felt fretful. His head was reeling. It was enough.
The weather is congenial with the sun blazing up in the azure blue. Under such good weather, Hin doesn’t mind having some traveling, first MTR, then a bus and 20-minute walk away from the mechanic orchestra to the natural music composers. He reaches the park near his school where people often jog along a river infamous for its pollution.
In the park, he picks a seat under a pine tree, takes off the guitar cover, lets it open and puts it in front of him. He then tunes the strings to the right chords. He starts to sweep the strings to play the music he composes. Next to him is a bicycle lane where the cyclists continuously bring wind. With its accomplice, the natural breeze from the river, fortunately, odorless at high tide, sometimes blows his hair and clothes astray. He enjoys such a feeling as he can imagine himself a hydrogen balloon, ascending in the wind and his music beyond any boundaries. He can’t help closing his eyes, swinging his body and humming along.
When he opens his eyes again, from the corners of them, he can see someone sitting next to him on the same bench. He subconsciously turns his head and gives that person a sidelong look—a thirtysomething young lady like his class teacher but far more pretty, cascading black curls, crescent brows, gazelle eyes and rosy cheeks on an oval face. Her royal blue chiffon lace dress and charcoal grey leather ballet flats further accentuate her porcelain white complexion. She seemingly eyes the river in front vacantly with her hands holding something. Realizing being watched intently, the lady shifts her head to Hin. On a quick reflex, to avoid embarrassment, Hin holds back his gaze and directs it to the strings of his guitar, continuing to play the music and hum the tune. He then feels the lady tilts her head to stare into the depth of the cloudless sky.
Several groups of cyclists pedal by them, mostly families and friends. Their laughter like tinkling bells creates pleasant sound effects echoing Hin’s music. The lady’s long curls freely dancing in the wind gently touch Hin’s face like kisses, sending itchy feelings and wild dreams.
What if the lady was ten years younger? Perhaps she would be one or two years older than him. If time like a disc could fast forward and backward, probably they could still meet there and a story of them would tell. She is more beautiful than Ling in his form, the most popular girl. Hin did once fall for Ling, affected by the mentality of herds. Many boys did in his form. He tried to draw her attention and please her with his impeccable guitar skills by wittingly composing songs for her and performing in front of her in the music lessons. His eyes steadied on her face when he played. She blushed. Yet, merely temporary. After a minute, she flirted with other boys in Tommy Hilfiger Sweaters and MBT shoes. What a slut!
The lady is different. She appears to indulge herself in his music. He plays one song after one and she sits there without much movement, apparently enjoying the tunes. She knows what a talent is. He loves to stay there with her forever, letting her hair caress his face. He can’t help stealing glances from her as he longs to know more about her. Her poreless skin, celestial nose, heart-shaped lips, full breasts, lengthy arms, slender fingers…. Then he suddenly spots her repeatedly rolling a silver band on the upper part of her ring finger near its tip.
What? Why? What is she doing? What is she thinking? He tries to look closely. There is a creased photo lying on her thighs right beneath her hands-- she and a man and a toddler in her arms. Gong! The distraction is too much for Hin to take in. An ugly throaty sound disrupts the tune. He mistakenly strikes the wrong strings. Stop. The helium balloon of dreams bursts into confetti.
The lady stands up immediately, perhaps jolted awake by the coarse sound. Without giving him a glimpse, she walks briskly to the iron railing in front, raises her arm and throws the photo and band to the river. They fly in the air and fall far apart. The ring hits the water first, rippling the surface and plunging straight into the oil-tainted, muddy river. Down and down to the lightless bottom with disposed trash and decayed bones. Swirling in the wind, after several somersaults, the photo eventually lands on the other side. It floats and floats, unceasingly washed by the foamy water, sainted by the pollutants in the sewage, its ink then starting to blur and soon, possibly one or two weeks, or even sooner, one or two days, frames and lines becoming shapeless, maybe much later, the paper turning into fragments and dissolving… into death.
Not bothered by what she has done, the lady takes a deep breath, shakes her head, turns and starts to stride away with her chest up and hair still fluttering wildly in the breeze. Watching the lady’s shadow, Hin can feel her relief but it gives him an irredeemably awful sense of revulsion, which pushes him to the brink of vomiting. He can’t play anymore. Nor can he stay there. Inexplicably, he feels a strong urge to go home. He misses the annoying symphony of the TV news, mahjong tiles, pop songs from hi-fi and so on. He misses the wontons most. He begins to pick up speed and sprints to the bus stop.
About the Author: Flo Au won the Most Creative Award in HK’s Top Story 2015. Her pieces are published or forthcoming in literary journals like Aaduna, Pif Magazine, Literary Yard, Star82 Review, EJ Insight, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Peacock Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Upper Room and ChristArt.