The room was spacious and plain. Emptiness was gathered as if to leave room for people’s imaginations. He rested himself on the russet sofa against the cream wall at the back, as he had been told to do, and examined every corner of the interior. The scent of sterilization struck his nose. Is that what I’m here for? The black leather massage chair next to the interlocutors lay motionless like a feminine silhouette against the blinded windows, which glowed mysteriously in blurry white. He saw himself lying on it, something he had done four days ago. Pointless. The third psychiatrist in two weeks.
“Does he talk to himself?”
“Yes, in his room. But I couldn’t get a word.”
“Do you two talk very often then?”
“We used to talk a lot. We’re like friends, my son and I, before it happened.”
“It is to do with stress, most probably, Mrs. Hon.”
“Stress doesn’t make this, Doctor, he is possessed.”
“Is that the reason you came to me?” The experienced clinical psychologist snorted.
Leonard hummed silently, just enough to distract himself from overhearing what his mother was discussing with the man cloaked in white. Their words became chaotic sounds of humans that swam mindlessly in the air. The woman paused, allowing the entrance of the tapping noise from the professional as he typed. His rectangular glasses, reflecting the cyan light spread from his slim screen, offered a translucent block to his much wrinkled eye-lids. His eyes flicked from his fingers to the screen, back and forth. The mother sighed in her heart. She turned back and looked at her teenage son over her shoulder, imagining that she was instead looking at someone else. Leonard pretended he did not notice her. He shifted a little and grabbed his bag closer to his body. He had his treasure inside.
The doctor raised the blinds, revealing the sparkling sea that responded to the aggressive sun hanging over the Asian metropolis. He watched them go out. The door was closed timidly. The grandfather clock standing next to it read 11:32; they had talked for an hour.
“Possessed,” he mumbled and shook his head with the corners of his lip curled up.
Storm in the hall. He hesitated as flashes of lightning attacked his fragile mind. He tried to pick up his lines —
Wind lifted me up
I rose from underneath, for the first time
Startled to see the verdure, the music of spring
Birds worded, you whispered
There came the flashlight again. He could almost sense the forthcoming thunder.
I ceased to swallow darkness
Fierce whiteness coated his view, searing the vision with a screen of orange red that gradually faded into soft dark scarlet; the epilogue of fireworks. He recollected his sight, but could no longer operate his oral muscles to articulate the word, not to mention remembering what word that should be. He halted. Blinked. No matter how hard he swept the blurred audience with his gaze, how fast his heart thumped, how many times he had rehearsed, he stopped after the first syllable of the head of the second line, stanza five, of his winning piece of poetry.
Replying to his silence were the eyes of the five hundred attendants, from thirty schools, who were gathered to appreciate the English poetry performance by young talents. Stanley Cheung, Leonard’s verse-speaking trainer, was mouthing the word ‘converse’, though knowing firmly that the spot-lit performer would never notice him in the dark.
‘‘Come on, kid, converse, converse with worms,’’ Cheung whispered desperately, intensely eyeing him, as if it would help the situation. ‘You wrote it yourself!’
Con…con…verse with worms…
The teenage panted. Something had nailed his tongue to the roof of his mouth all of a sudden. Sweat oozed from his head skin like growing pearls. He struggled to continue, uttering a few more sound units. The hall full(added space between hall and full) of people mumbled.
‘‘What’s wrong with him?’’ The vice-principal leaned towards Cheung, obviously irritated.
‘‘Don’t know, the boy lost his accent too,’’ Cheung answered, noticing the change of tone from his trainee. ‘‘The flashlights, I said no cameras! Cut it, where’s the host?’’
A loud thud stunned the scene, followed by a cry from the shocked audience. Leonard fell on the ground, unconscious, knocking the microphone stand down to the floor. The speakers let out an echoing bang as the microphone was shattered the moment its head struck the wooden floorboards.
Several people began rushing towards the well-lit stage.
Coiled in bed, Leonard enjoyed momentarily the warmth trapped by his cotton sheet; a huddled kitten in a basket. He had been awake for some time, but had little intention of getting up. Accompanying him were the rhythmic taps from his alarm clock, and the muted dialogue outside. He did not know when he had started feeling his room was unfamiliar, but he did feel it unnatural for some reason. The colour, perhaps.
“That’s very kind of you, Mr. Cheung,” said Mrs. Hon, placing a cup of tea in front of the visitor.
“Oh, welcome, madam,” he responded fast. “How long has he been in bed?”
“He should be getting up now; I’ll go and wake him.”
“No, no, please don’t. I didn’t mean that.”
“He went straight into his bedroom after we came back from the doctor.”
“No, Yuen, another one, but just as useless.”
“You’ve changed doctors quite often, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, we know. He’s the third one in two weeks,” the mother sat herself down at the dining table, next to the young teacher. “It’s so difficult for any one of them to believe a word I say.”
“I understand how you must be feeling,” Cheung took a sip of tea, too hot for him to take another. “Sometimes I don’t believe what I see from Leonard either.”
“I just can’t figure it out why it picked him. Why him?” The mother’s eyes went red, flickered. “I’m not prepared to face such kinds of things; I’m… I’m just…lost! If you know what I mean.”
The two went silent for some time. The man shared her feeling, for he had no clue at this stage either. Staring at his own reflection from the glass doors of the bookcase opposite, he gradually recalled how it all started.
“Can I go to see him?” Cheung requested.
Leonard rudely removed his shoes by pulling out his feet one after another, stepping on the heel of each shoe. He always hated to bend to take them off. His mother closed the door and asked if the thirteen-year-old needed any food, thinking that he had not eaten much. Briefly he indicated his dislike and went into his bedroom. As told, a recent rule, he would leave the door ajar, no locking.
Routinely, Leonard undressed himself, leaving on only his underclothes. He unzipped his backpack, which had been placed carefully on the chair, and took out a worn red-covered school exercise book. He sat himself on the edge of his bed with T-shirts and pyjamas scattered, and flipped over the pages. The pages were painted with aged stains, stapled with many other loose sheets that had almost doubled the thickness of the book. Once again, he smiled upon the words and figures in it, as if they reminded him of things that had a severely positive impact in his life.
From the door gap came the voice of his mum, chatting with somebody on the phone.
‘…Just come back from the doctor,’ she said tiredly. ‘Just the same as before, thinking I’m a nut…’
Leonard stopped himself from looking at the source of the noise and attended back to his book. Jumped to his feet, he went to his chair and continued reading. He had been picking pages at random since he finished reading the entire book.
…I’m not nuts. I know what I’m doing. I’m no longer a small girl. Hate it when people say that I’m naïve. An adjective representing simplicity and unsophistication no longer suits me. I can take good care of myself, and those around me. He wasn’t in the mood for teaching today, I could feel it. We only chatted. But deep we went. He promised I’d be the first one he called after the operation. It’s gonna be simple, an easy one, he said. I keep remembering his last wave as we departed at the school entrance. [Tue. 16/5/1989]
Gently he closed the book; the breeze of time stroked his innocent face, the pages whispered to him. He ran his fingers down the aged red cover, highlighting every word.
NAME: (An unrecognizable signature)
CLASS NO: (Blank)
Leonard ignored his mother’s yelling about Cheung’s visit. He placed the book carefully back into his drawer and rested himself in bed. The air-conditioner above him hummed tenderly. His lullaby.
An ostensibly uneventful afternoon, spring 1988. The last thing Hana is expecting is that her life is about to change when she sees the young fellow walk into the packed classroom. Packed with noise and questioning faces, boys and girls.
“Umm…my name is Alexander Hui. You may call me Mr Hui or Alex or whatever…” he begins his introduction in English, noticing the annoyed expressions from some of the young teenagers because of his choice of language.
Hana’s class has been informed earlier that a new English teacher will come to replace the one who resigned. Nevertheless, considering that he is responsible for English, they soon lose interest in him. They simply find the language remote and impractical. They do not bother knowing which teacher is to replace the old one. And the new-comer becomes a target for the deviant.
“I don’t know what you’re saying!” a boy shouts out loudly in Cantonese. ‘‘Switch the channel!’’
“Oh, I’m sure you can understand me,” the youthful scholar responds calmly, as if expecting the unfriendly response. “Please rise, 1A.”
He gestures the class to stand, with his arms open and a welcoming smile. The pupils look at one another, seeking approval, and half-willingly follow him. Gradually, they stand up. The misbehaving ones want to know what he is up to, while the real learners seem all of a sudden to have a high expectation of him. Hana, among the latter group, eyes the young gentleman from hair to feet. At the age of twenty, he has about the same appearance as the average Form Seven students. Just a little skinny. She thinks he would look fine if he was wearing their school uniform. However, the black-framed glasses he wears together, with his pushed-back hair touched with excessive gel, force a mature look, like a boy who cannot wait to be a grown-up. His loose shirt, with its patterns of grids, reminds the girl of her uncle, who once jokingly said that he could dodge through rain-drops with his slim build. Somehow, she finds this newcomer intriguing to look at, absorbing to imagine.
“If you want to sit down,” says the new teacher with very articulated British English. “Put up your hand and ask me a question about me, in English.”
Dead air lingers for a few seconds seeing amused faces looking at their neighbours before Hana hesitatingly raises her left hand up at shoulder level. Her eyes shine.
“Do you have a nickname?”
Hui smiles out of surprise, his tidy teeth glisten between his wide thin lips, amid a soft background of noise anticipating a response. He looks at the questioner, who is blessed with cascading silky black hair flowing over her oval face against the babyish cherry skin.
“Not in English, my dear.”
She had seen more than any others of her age. At least it was what she thought. She saw the death of her mother, in her bed, lingering slowly. She was seven. It took her mother half a year to pass away. It is like plants; death is a process, it came to her understanding. And there was her father, who did not turn up when his ex-wife was hospitalized, who missed her funeral. The girl had not seen him for years already. He lived in a remote zone of her memory. “Why did they have to get married?” she once asked her grandmother. This mother of her late mum had been raising the child since the departure of her beloved daughter. But they did not talk too often, because of the age gap, perhaps. The child did not know how to communicate with those from the former dynasty.
Thus, she seldom talked. Most of the time, she could not find any purpose for speaking. She would rather choose to write. She picked up reading. An indiscriminate reader, she read English books more often, because it was not her best subject. She knew she had to fight for a better life, to make up for what fate had taken from her. She still believed there was a future awaiting her. There were still things to be sought. There was still love. I’m a love-seeker, she once wrote in her diary.
Love. Something she could not define.
Now I know it is him. He’s the guardian angel you promised to send me.
There seems to be a lot of understanding between us whenever our eyes meet. But Margaret is starting to get curious over our connection. She saw me writing cute notes for him. But thank God she hasn’t seen those he wrote me.
I love the way he smiles; his mouth isn’t that large, when you really come to look at it. No idea why he still keeps the nickname of “Tai-hau” (big mouth). He seems to like it. A family thing probably. He signs a little “12” thing for his signature, which I’ve finally decoded as the Chinese character “Hau” for “mouth”, written in cursive script. Smart me, huh? Hee…No, he actually told me this yesterday after school. We talk a lot these days. We go deep.
I’ve got used to having his company after school. Our private lessons. I just wonder sometimes, what could it be if he weren’t my teacher? The 7-year age gap doesn’t look like a problem between us. Grandpa was 8 years older than grandma, wasn’t he?
Mum, I’m tired.
Could it be him?
12 Nov. 1988
She takes a final look at her handwriting, blows the paper to dry the dark blue ink. To use a fountain pen is to show reverence, her mum had told her. Cautiously she folds the letter twice, as if worrying that even a tiny mistake will demolish her efforts. She slides it into a white envelope, on which she has already written the name of the recipient. It is then licked and sealed.
Hana stares at the front of the envelope, imagining what the reader may think when receiving it. She brings it towards the flame of a candle she has lit for the purpose. A corner touches the flame. A golden spot is attached at the tip and it glows brilliantly as she tilts it downward a little. She picks up the metal basin from the floor and throws into it the burning paper, waking up the sleeping ashes lying there. She watches the dance of the small fire, which magically transforms the paper into light, heat and smoke. The dark silk rises from the desk to veil the framed picture of her mother. In the crackling noise, she seems to be seeing her mother tearing off the envelope and unfolding the words newly written. The girl smiles.
This used to be a classroom. The blackboard still wore traces of chalk. Leonard had no idea when it was degraded into a storeroom. The boy in detention looked up at the ceiling, at the corners. Spiders. The wooden desks and chairs were piled up like garbage hills in a landfill. He saw footprints on them. Boxes of computer accessories had accumulated. The air was filled with staleness. The room had no windows.
He was ordered by Cheung to wait for him this recess time. The boy had failed in his English dictation three times in a row. He made no effort in his writing either; he wrote nonsense in class, and at home. His teacher could not help asking him to stay behind for a chat. Leonard had not much feeling for this though. He was occupied in his own thoughts.
Alone in the room, he ran his fingers across the cracking wall beside him, stylized by exfoliated cement and tiny graffiti left by former schoolmates. One of the patterns attracted the eyes of the wonderer. Carved inside the shape of a heart, there was written quite distinctively the sequence ‘Hn12’. He felt the texture of it with his fingers and tried to make up a meaning. Having a passion for numbers, he found the code exceptionally intriguing. He rubbed the small carved symbol harder as if it would reveal a bit more information.
A buzzing noise came from above. The dusty light blinked once. The interrupted Leonard turned and looked up. Nothing. His eyes were brought down to the glass window of the opposite bookcase. His face was reflected distortedly; his hand still touching the sign behind. The light went off again. The boy gasped in the sudden darkness. Then it twinkled, like a flashlight. For a fragment of a second, the image of a long-haired figure seemed to emerge. Was it me? He thought it was a shadow trick. The light came back on again. He looked at the re-stabilized light source and again at the reflection of his face from the glass. Just a familiar boy pressing on the wall behind him.
Attending back to the carving, a sense of depression gradually squirted up from his stomach like a fountain in slow motion. A kind of diffusion. Somehow he heard somebody sobbing in the distance.
Stanley Cheung entered the room. He closed the door behind him swiftly. He was aware that he had arrived a bit late.
‘‘Leonard,’’ the teacher said, as he approached the youngster standing idly by the wall. ‘‘Leonard, you know why I asked you to come, don’t you?’’
The boy slowly turned his head towards the questioner, and returned him a blank expression, his face stiff and pale.
“Why do you look at me like that?” the teacher said in a business tone, grabbing a nearby chair, landing it in front of Leonard noisily and sitting himself down as if he did not have a second to lose. He was busy rolling up his sleeves. “I think I’ve reminded you quite a few times before the dictation days. I’ve done it, haven’t I? Then why —”
“It’s not you,” whispered the standing boy to the teacher.
The room was struck by a sudden stillness. Cheung did not expect Leonard to speak to him suddenly in English, something he seldom did even when being forced to do so in class. It was the subject in which he had the least confidence in. “Sorry, Leonard, what did you just say?” Cheung hesitatingly asked, looking critically at the expressionless child, checking his every tiny action, as if he needed special attention all of a sudden.
“It’s not you,” he repeated himself with the same weary texture. “No.”
Leonard’s head tilted down slowly, minimally shaking. He looked at the floor with deep frustration. His breathing was noisy, obstructed by fluid. He started to blush. The noise of his swallowing was strong.
“Leonard,” Cheung got to his feet and went close to the sobbing boy. “Are you okay?”
Leonard did not say a word, refusing to look at the teacher. Cheung placed his warm palms on both of his cheeks and gently lifted up his head. He thought of how he had once held a frightened duckling when he attended college in Scotland. “Look at me,” Cheung ordered bluntly. “What is it?”
For a moment, Cheung saw his shrunk fish-eye reflection in the kid’s watery eyes. But then, the child averted the demanding gaze and lowered his head again, shaking off the hands. No matter how hard Cheung persuaded and coaxed him, the boy kept on sealing his lips and dropping tears. His only other action was to rub his face. Cheung had never seen him cry and could not guess what might have happened to him to cause this. He thought the boy had been in a normal state in the morning. Leonard was never a moody person to his understanding. Just when he thought up another question about the source of the boy’s mood fluctuation, the bell went off. Cheung saw Leonard raising his head fast, as if remembering something. “Am I supposed to go somewhere?” Leonard spoke again.
Cheung noticed that he spoke with a distinctive non-local accent, something the child had never come close to having. It was like seeing a totally incompetent low-grade pianist suddenly being able to master Chopin’s Polonaises. The teacher’s mind was full of questions; utterly astounded.
Shocked, aren’t you?
Not really, I’m pleased.
In that case, I’ve failed. My purpose was to surprise you.
Written works won’t shock me. After all, I’m expecting works of this standard from you, so…
Perhaps I should make another one.
Yeah, keep trying. Or perhaps this one can be revised. Have you considered turning it into an acrostic one?
Like those of your favourite?
Yeah, you know how much I like acrostic poems.
…Lyn? Who are you referring to?
One of your acrostic poems from your anthology. The one with L-Y-N to start the lines. The Haiku.
Ah. Well. What makes you think that’s an acrostic? I think I didn’t bold the letters.
That makes it even more suspicious. She must be someone fairly significant to you. But you’re trying very hard to conceal your feeling about her. Am I right?
You’d like to be a psychologist wouldn’t you?
Someone who studies minds.
I prefer a poet. Like you.
You’re already one, Hana.
Write one for me, would you?
The storm outside has no sign of fading. The celestial conductor employs the thunder excessively to make contrast against the hysterical singing of the rain. The incessant lightning reminds her of what her mum once told her about storms at night: there must be a party going on up there, the kind of party with lots of celebrities, where photographers are busy flashing with their cameras. The thunder is the noise of jubilation from fans. That is an exciting moment, high up there.
A party without me, the girl says to herself. Hui has been off for three days in a row. Hana has heard from the office that the young teacher has to undergo some sort of medical check-ups. Hana knows he often complains about his headaches. But never does she expect his condition to be complicated in any way. He has not said goodbye. He has not commented on her new poem. She has written it for him. Her savior. She has been here alone since the end of lessons, in the classroom where they meet for extra sessions, the platform on which they exchange thoughts beyond words. A lightning cracks the sky, flashes in the hostile light that further disturbs the girl indoors. She walks out of the room to the moist corridor. Standing in a puddle of rain water, she leans against the barrier to feel the pouring tears. She sees herself standing alone, soaked through, in the centre of the flooded playground down there, being teased by the rain, smacked by the lightning, rebuked by the wild roar from heaven. She sees her face, wiped by the running water, so pale and hopeless. She sees the nails of falling water attacking the deserted basketball court. She sees the silence around her, right at the centre of the white circle, so tiny and insignificant. A world without him is ruthless, she says in her mind.
Let the aura engulf us
Leonard gave a half bow after reciting the short verse, highly articulated. The screen with the piece projected on was next to him. There was a bit of applause, mainly from the girls, admiring more the way it was read than written. Most of the audience showed a frown, whispering to neighbours. Cheung was expecting this reaction from the class, for he would do quite the same if he were among them. He was well aware of the rumours spreading these days that Leonard had changed quite a bit in character, and intellectually, especially in the English subject. People saw him talking to himself while walking alone in the corridor, or in the lavatory. He had become very outspoken in English and was able to produce written work well beyond the standard of his mates. And yet, sometimes, he would forget what he had written or said, or avoid commenting on his work. Something odd was going on in him.
“Leonard, would you mind explaining to your classmates the background of this piece? Like how did you come up with the idea of making a piece as such? Who or what inspired you to interpret ‘love’ in such a way?” asked Cheung, hearing some noise from the crowd as triggered by the word “love.”
“I guess it’s a private poem that I wrote for a friend,” answered the boy with careful thoughts. “If you can feel or agree with what it’s about, then, I’m glad that you enjoyed it; but if it’s not the case, I think I’m not in the position to explain or make you think in the way I do, because, you haven’t touched the world the way I have, as simple as that.”
“What did he say? Has he just said something?” a bulky boy at the back said to the one next to him in a volume that was loud enough to reach every corner of the room. ‘Why the rubbish talk? A copy is a copy, just admit it!’
Before the teacher could interrupt, he saw Leonard speed to the centre of the classroom, much closer to the bulky boy. “Did I just hear anything from you, Mister?” Leonard said in a tone with unmistakable menace.
“Why pretend to be a westerner? Speak Chinese as you are one,” challenged the bulky boy.
Hearing this, Cheung was absolutely raged. He ordered the heavy boy to stand, and scolded him severely in front of the class for failing to understand he was indeed in an English lesson, and, to respect the effort of his classmate.
“What’s your name, may I ask, sir?” Leonard, with a cold smile that could give anyone a chill, asked the big boy, now standing.
The whole class fell silent. They had been classmates for years already since primary school; it was ridiculous to ask such a question even for threatening purposes.
“Your name please,” he asked again with a firm gaze, seeing the uncooperative expression from the big one.
“Leonard, that’s enough,” interrupted Cheung.
Leonard did not turn back, but gestured to the teacher not to interfere. He walked even closer to the fat boy. The size difference between the two was prominent. The class watched the drama with excitement and anticipation.
“You are sick, you really need a doctor,” said the fat boy in mockery, showing no fear of the intimidation.
“You will remember what you’ve just said for the rest of your life,” said Leonard. “Mr Nobody.”
Back in the staff room, Stanley Cheung finally found his chance to sit down. He let out a lengthy, weary sigh that brought him the unwanted attention of his colleagues. He did not have the least enjoyment seeing the quarrel between the two kids. He was particularly concerned about the last few words Leonard had said; the threat he made to the one who had mocked him. Considering his recent unstable psychological status, no one could predict what further actions he might take. He was more than grateful the session had ended at the right point, not any later.
He seized the mug from the corner of his desk, sorted out a few sheets on his chaotically organized desk and drank a sip of cooled water. In the chatter of his co-workers all around the spacious room, amid the ringing of telephones and the beat from typing, he slid out a transparent folder from the packed shelves behind him. The folder contained the submitted work from students for a potential performance at the inter-school English Festival to be held two weeks later. On the top of the pile was a piece of poetry that he had chosen after the first time he read it. Not that he loved the theme, he was moved by the way the author shaped his vision and interpreted the world, but at the same time, something worried him:
The world withered
I was cradled in the crack of crust
From the abyss came a thin slit of sky above me
A turbid knife of cloud and dust.
And rain visited
Brooks ran down the crumpled face of land
The first kiss from heaven
A gentle touch to my hand
The fireball reappeared
Scaring away the lousy cotton drifting
Organs of blaze, your eyes
The warmth in my heart budding
Wind lifted me up
I rose from underneath, for the first time
Startled to see the verdure, the music of spring
Birds worded, you whispered
I ceased to swallow darkness
Converse with worms
I ceased to be embraced by roots
Be wrapped in suffocation
The earth, the everything
Sink, to the void
Following are the light
― The colours of my life
The stream in my veins
The flame of my soul
The aura around me
I let out my last breath
The world withers
Cheung’s pondering was soon interrupted by someone rushing into the staffroom.
“Teachers!” yelled a sweating child, panting. “There is a stripper in the playground!”
Hearing these words, a few teachers rushed out. Cheung had not been asked to head down after them, but he followed them anyway. Cheung thought of having an intruder coming into the school, getting naked and chasing school girls. It was not something nice to imagine.
They kept rushing downstairs. The people at the front were chatting. The vice-principal was probably asking for more information from the boy, but Cheung could not catch a single word due to the distance and the noise of many footsteps. As they were getting closer to the playground, the noise from the crowd became more obvious. They soon reached the basketball court. Meeting their astonished eyes were schoolchildren surrounding something in the middle of the court.
The teachers pushed the crowd aside and were utterly stunned by the scene. A male was standing there, turned to his back, totally stripped, from head to toe. The only good thing was that, instead of some mentally deranged person breaking in to haunt the children, this naked one was a student here. Before the teacher leader commanded him to turn around, he did so slowly; it seemed like that was what he was waiting for.
“You…what…,” the vice-principal could only utter these sounds. He had in front of him a pale, plump Secondary One student standing there as a nude model, eyes opened ajar, eyelids shaking. On his bare chest there were two big lines of words written in English with dirt of some kind: “I’m sick. I need a doctor.” The watchers around were trying with all their might not to let out a single sound of laughter from their mouths. But in their hearts, it was really one of the most memorable moments they had ever experienced in their school lives. The vice-school head pulled off his jacket and hurried to the cover the boy.
On the wall behind the vice-principal, there was an old wooden cross, with the emaciated figure nailed to it. It was the first thing Leonard noticed in the room.
“What do you think it means?” the man asked the student opposite.
“Wong Siu-fai was naked at the playground, not knowing how it happened at all!”
“The guy is insane anyway,” Leonard stated bluntly. “He’s just doing what he may do.”
“Leonard!” snapped Cheung, standing next to the desk between the two conversers. “Mind your words.”
“What did I say wrong?” the boy replied with confidence. “How would I know why he acted that way? I was resting in the classroom at the time; you may ask the guys like Thomas and Benedict. I’m not lying to you.”
The vice-principal eyed the boy, then exchanged gaze with the teacher, both realizing they might not be talking to the one they hoped they were talking to.
“Leonard, the poem,” Cheung said to Leonard menacingly quietly, arms folded. “Can you read me the poem you submitted?”
“Huh? What for?” questioned Leonard, feeling very unsafe suddenly.
“Speak in English,” Cheung went on. “Read me the poem you gave me for the show.”
“I have to have the right mood for that,” Leonard said. “I don’t have the right mood in this room now.”
“You must at least remember the name of it,” the vice-principal interrupted. His English tone was much deeper than that of his Chinese. “I believe.”
“Say the name of your poem,” Cheung added. “Then you may go.”
The two adults noticed his obvious unease. The boy rubbed his face with his hands, blushing.
Cheung was then aware of the existence of the artifact hanging up on the wall. He looked at it, and attended back to the anxious child.
“Eh-li-men,” Leonard finally uttered.
“Yes, it is, Leonard,” Cheung commented.
“Can I go now?” Leonard said, but regretted having done so.
“Yes,” the vice-principal permitted, smiling. “As you wish.”
Followed by the hoarse noise of the wooden chair being pushed back, the two seniors saw Leonard leave the room. The door was closed cautiously.
Cheung looked at the cross again.
‘His accent is now the same as that he always had before,’ Cheung said.
‘A good thing or a bad thing?’ the old man asked critically.
‘Can’t tell,’ said Cheung, shaking his head. ‘How’s Wong Siu-fai?’
Alone in the garden, the passer-by saw the boy resting on the long elegant bench, a book on his lap. He might have noticed the whispers, the smiles, the gazes passing the corridor; he might have noticed the attention, the suspicion, the fright around him. But, he cared not. The sun sharpened the colours of the layers of foliage drifting and vegetation sitting, highlighting the swirling insects in the textured air, casting wobbly patterns on the new lawn, the pavement, the old miserable brick walls. He felt himself glowing alone in this school garden, a historical spot in the school; he thought of it as a natural sanctuary. There he flipped a page. He had made it a habit to study this journal he had found in the detention room. Every page was alive. He saw a young lady in school uniform beside him, also glowing. She would read to him whatever was shown on the page he turned to, pointed at the words and figures. He was impressed by her smile, her immaculate pale cheeks.
“Was that really what you called him?”
“Twelve? Chinese or English?”
“Twelve, or Twelvy.”
“Or big mouth, or ‘Tai-hau.’ He loved to hear nicknames from me.”
“And you two were…You started in here?”
“The private lessons? Yes, in our classroom.”
“No, not that. I thought you knew what I meant.”
“Were you together? You know, together?”
“Always. We are still.”
“Yes, of course. Who’s this L-Y-N person then? You wrote so many ‘Who’s L-Y-N?’s in here.”
“Lyn. That’s Lyn. Not me.”
Bounded by the many roughly-written questions, a short Haiku slept nobly in the middle of the page:
Let me rest in
Your mind as you have possessed mine
Never leave me
Leonard saw her expression change. Something asked him not to inquire further into this matter, and that he had chosen the wrong topic. He turned to another page towards the end. In the book, there was only one piece of poetic work, among the sixty nine, which had not been marked, commented, or signed with a “12.”
“This one looks so clean. You didn’t show it to him, did you?”
Leonard heard no response. A drip of water touched his face, and that was when he realised the blue sky had been covered up. He found himself lying on the bench, shoeless, hands clutching a closed book on his chest. He sat up, seeing a grey forest around him, the sole person in the unfriendly zone. He quickly put down his legs, put on his shoes, and sprinted to the corridor as rain began to pour.
Leonard’s peaceful breathing formed a duet with the untrained voice of the ventilation. He twisted to the left, purred with contentment. Cheung strained the crippled blanket to cover the exposed feet of the child, before returning to his silent reading.
It had almost been two hours that he had stayed in this cozy room, during which the teacher had searched thoroughly for the cause of the kid’s abrupt altering of character. He checked his desk, bags, wardrobe, some loose written sheets. The man found this book from the drawer particularly intriguing. For a second, he worried that it was not at all ethical to examine the boy’s belongings without permission. His instinct, however, told him it was more for the good. He had begun to read the aged red-covered school exercise book and was utterly shocked by what had been collected in it.
It bore their school’s shield, but the edition of the book seemed much older than what people could recognize. The item had no names at the front, not even the teacher’s. The year was not indicated either. Inside, the pages led a literary journey. There were diary entries. It occurred to him that a girl was writing a lot about her feelings concerning school, people, especially somebody she admired, a very specific person whom, interestingly, she refused to name explicitly. There were lesson notes and self-reflections. Some very profound understandings and reflections were jotted. The author was keen to learn about the construction of the English language, the way to describe with style, the way to compose complex lines with impact, how to persuade, how to touch readers’ hearts, how to sing with a pen by writing poems. Plentiful loose pieces of worksheets were attached, making the book unnaturally thick. A lot of her work had been commented on and signed, dated between the winter of 1988 and summer of 1989. Cheung was ashamed at the remarks given as he would never comment on a student’s work to that extent. The assessor supported, encouraged, criticized and advised with great passion and skill. Cheung reckoned that if the marker was not a whole-hearted educator, the person should be closely acquainted with the owner of the book to rationalize the time and effort involved.
The more Cheung went into the work, the more it seemed to play a vital role in Leonard’s recent transformation. The record contained a lot of similar work to what the boy had been producing over the weeks, including an identical verse, ‘Elements’. The handwriting of the two parties was surprisingly close too. Cheung first thought Leonard was trying to improve his penmanship because of reprimands for his untidy handwriting. And now there seemed a need for his reassessment.
Cheung flipped the book as silently as a singer would do in a recording session. At one point, he could justify suspecting that the boy plagiarized from this book, which he might have obtained in whatever way ― quite enough for a harsh castigation. And yet it failed to explain how he had changed his accent also. From Leonard’s mother the teacher knew the child did not have a private tutor, and would not have one for some reason. By educated judgment, the exercise book alone could never make anyone, Leonard in particular, improve so rapidly in both written and verbal English. The work could only be, at most, a key piece of the puzzle, and never the solution.
“Mr. Cheung,” Mrs. Hon knocked and spoke outside of the room. She pushed the door slowly. “Stay for dinner, would you?”
“I think I’m leaving soon, Mrs. Hon,” he had prepared this answer. “Thank you.”
He saw the weak nod from the lady, who pulled the door back silently. Through the gap of the door the shadow of the anxious mother faded away.
Cheung sank deeper into the chair, pressed himself harder against the soft back. A sigh was all he could respond to the matter. Sometimes he found the entire idea ridiculous. He might want to agree with Dr Yuen, from whom they had just returned, that stress had caused everything. The world itself might as well just be a hallucination anyway. He smiled at himself when coming to this.
He had the book closed on the desk, a hand pressing its cover, fingers tapping randomly. What was left in his mind was the impression from the final pieces.
…people said it was a success. I knew it would be. I’ve prayed. I never do this stupid thing. I never believe in praying but I did. I’ve been doing it every night. I could give everything for his safety, his health. The operation must be a success. And it was. I should be celebrating this moment. With him. Seems appropriate. But why am I writing this? Alone.
And so will I be. Last night I prayed again, for the last time. Was it that he recovered at the hospital just for dying in my world? Why then does he live for death? I haven’t done anything wrong. We haven’t. I’m not asking much. So much have been taken away from my childhood. I’m not asking much. Just a bit of time with him. And that’s all I want, for that’s the reason I live.
And now, there’s this funeral. Maybe I should do the memorial speech. Saying how we met, how I thought of him, how he thought of me. And then, perhaps, somebody would do a similar speech for me. Wouldn’t it?
It is a Tuesday. She leaves the book in her drawer and walks out of the classroom. She does not need the book anymore, no one will read it, no one will be expecting it. She has completed her final piece of poem on the very last page. Things fit.
She walks downstairs. She hears the hilariousness from the volleyball match coming from below. She looks at the sweating bodies, but seeing nobody. Drifted by the current of fate, she is out of the campus. The girl has little idea where she is heading. She finds it too difficult to stop replaying the last scenes she has had with Hui, especially the last few words she heard from him. He had asked her to keep on reading, to be good, to take care of herself and her grandmother. His wife, next to him, had told her it was such a pleasure meeting her, finally, and that she had heard so much about her.
“Hana, this is Lyn.”
She knows she has got the answers to many of her questions, seeing the couple, be it that she feels convinced or not. But she cannot understand why he had to quit, or why he did it without informing her first. Perhaps she still does not get it. She does not understand how things work. She is only an extra in the film, but has never realized it.
She saw him getting into his car, departing with the tall, professional-looking female. She remembers that was a sunny afternoon, Friday, was it?
Now she sees another family across the road. A child enjoying his melting lollipop. His face painted with sticky fluid. She walks on, hearing no sound but voices from her heart. She has got used to rationalizing matters not going her way. But this one ties her up. To make sense of the world means there is still hope to voyage, there are still things to see. But arriving at the point where there is no base for hopes to survive, like being on a boat in the middle of a dried ocean, what sense can still be made?
At some point, she feels her body shaking, perhaps being lifted up. She is not sure. She thinks she sees the sky, the images passed so fast. Her limbs fly effortlessly. And there are metallic noise, glass breaking noise, and other unknown sounds of which some indeed come from within her. Her bones crack.
She guesses she is lying on the cement floor, half soaked in some form of dark liquid, running warm. The heaven smiles, so does she. She should have heard the horn, the shrieking wheels, the yelling people. She should have, but she has missed them. Missed them all. Her thought is leaving her. She does not know how to conclude the day. Somehow, she has always been imagining whom she will miss when her days end, like before an execution. But when the time comes, she has no room to think of anyone. She finds it funny. Maybe it is her grandmother, the one who cares about her most. She always knows it.
Cheung walked past the football pitch. He knew Leonard would be there playing. Through the entanglement, the youthful sweated, sprinted and danced; language was done through actions. Leonard missed an easy score. And he laughed with exaggerated disappointment, receiving pats and strokes from mates. All their jerseys patterned in dirt.
Cheung came near the wire netting, resting a hand on it, almost yelling for Leonard’s attention. But the teacher knew the focus players needed. And he also knew he ought to be glad for Leonard’s being accepted back into his squad, for his quick forgetfulness of the mind confusion, for the return of his academic poverty. There had not been a single case of character change or mood fluctuation in him in three weeks since the removal of the book. Cheung had sealed it in an envelope and juxtaposed it to an open bible in a paper box. He stacked it up on a shelf in the storeroom. The vice-principal was with him at the time. He was the one telling him not to have the thing burned. Cheung also felt the need to respect history, the love in the past, the love that remained.
The old man seemed to know something about what happened two decades ago. But Cheung was not interested in it. He still kept himself innocent to the name of the girl, and the identity of the nicknamed. He thought the matter should only be kept within those involved, but had a prickly feeling at heart for what might have happened.
Driving home, the digital clock read noon, reminding him of the good of a half-day off. Floating from a poignant tone of a violin, the impression of the last poem of the book emerged, as though somebody was singing it in the back seat. The voice clean, like water.
The arm strikes the top
Your name on the clock
You are my hours
Do not mind me
I am possessed
By my own desire
The reason I am clad
Contentedly with fire
Do not wake me
Let in your scent
You are named after the nature
You own her frame
And I was a lucky fool
A nobody whom you had once claimed