Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lollipop Men

The little bell rang. Jingle jingle. In walked a man. An old man, a hunch on his back, face darkened by patches of dirt, hair that was dry as hay and grey as ash. Some of the buttons on his shirt were chipped, a couple of it missing, one of a different shape, and another, of a different size. The colours of his shirt were worn out and the fabric thinned. Even the stains on his shirt were dull and stale with time.


Slowly walking into the shop, his hand was clenching a 5 dollar bill. “Could I exchange this for coins?”


For a while I was wondering, why would an old man, a beggar perhaps, ask for coins? Keeping the thought to myself, I opened the drawer and retrieved my coin bag and took a dip for the coins. Then the answer came barging through the door.


“Daddy daddy…”


Like her daddy, she had dry hair and a face that would otherwise be fair had it not be for those dirt marks. Pretty blue eyes, a torn ribbon to hold the hay together, and a blackish grey skirt that could once have been white.


Old man hushed the girl, but the girl was evidently very excited about riding the brass horse outside my shop. Taking a peek from where I stood, behind the opaque glass was another little shadow, pressing against the glass, trying to take a sneak at the little commotion unfolding inside the shop.


The girl left as quickly as she came in and joined her younger brother outside. She was probably 8, and the boy, 5? Sentiment and nostalgia has been at every corner of this shop, dormant and asleep, and it took 2 children and an old man to bring them to life again.


“I’m really sorry sir,” I bluffed. “I really don’t have enough coins. Tell you what, just take the shillings. The horse only feeds on 10 cent coins.”


“No no… I’m just here to exchange coins…” It’s true, the words of a forgotten philosopher now ring in my ears: Greater the dignity of a poor man. And I know what those words meant. Every single word.


For I was once poor myself.


His hands were trembling so badly. Was it Parkinson? Was it Alzheimer? He was stammering as he tried to explain: His children just want to have a horse ride, and he came to exchange coins. Perhaps he has tried the other shops beside my book shop, and perhaps too the snobbish owners turned him away.


How could I then, without being snobbish or proud, show him some kindness?


“Sir, I would love to engage with you in such an honourable exchange, but I simply have no such
capacity as I sincerely do not have sufficient coins… but perhaps you would accept these coins as a simple gift from me to your children?”


“It’s Christmas after all…” ironically he was standing under the mistletoe I hung right in front of the fortress – the cashier’s desk – that I faithfully guarded from behind. He let out a sigh. His fingers unfold, revealing the crumpled 5 dollar bill, and upon that very crumpled note I gently dropped the shillings.


“Thank you,” his eyes wandered, not knowing where to look, “And Merry Christmas.”


A string tugged my heart as he turned towards the door. Instinctively my hand dived into the coin bag and familiarly reached for a tiny piece of my heart.


“Sir! Wait,” I hurried up to the door as his hand fastened on the door knob, the bells softly jingling again. “There’s something else.”



That cold morning I was all alone. The orphanage gave me the boot after I fought with the kid again. That useless kid who thought he was so great for having parents that died in Normandy while fighting the Germans.


“You son of a bitch!!” he screamed spitefully after accepting my blow that landed accurately on his left jaw. And he wasn’t swearing. If only I didn’t confide in that Father – whom I thought could be trusted – and if only the adults didn’t talk so loudly while preparing our dinner the week before, the kid wouldn’t have screamed those words.


True, the adults later said. It’s not my fault that I had a bitch for a mother, but it’s my fault that I socked him in the eye, broke his fingers and smashed his shin with the wooden block the kitchen helpers use to chop chicken meat on.


That cold morning, the heavens broke and rain poured. All living creatures, man and beast, scurried into the shelters, leaving me all alone in the streets, with nothing but a hot red butt - from the spanking earlier – and a torn sweater that soaked up the cold rain. For the second time in my 10 years of life, I cried. Huddling up beside anything I could lean on, water kept falling onto my face, mixing with the narrow streams flowing from the swollen corners of my eyes.


Just when I thought no one was hearing and no one knew, the rain stopped falling on my face. Not that the rain really did stop – the sound of rain falling on the zinc roofs could still be heard. Tilting my head up, a huge pair of leather boots was planted in front of my tiny shoes. Looking up even more, a well-built man, carrying an umbrella, and as if it was not enough to keep him dry, had a long woolen overall which I thought was a tad too big for him.


Probably he was the first soul that ever smiled to me, the despicable and hideous little creature that accidentally burst the wombs of a night watcher of the streets. Was I scared? Afraid that he would do something to me, kicked me in the legs, ask me to get up and get moving? Now, I couldn’t really remember what it felt back then when confronted with that huge guy, but I remembered clearly, I stopped crying.


From the deep pockets inside his overall, he pulled out a lollipop. A bright colourful lollipop that had colours swirling in a spiral, the colours fusing into a single dot in the middle of it. Wrapped in a transparent plastic wrapper and sitting on top of a wooden stick. I took it from his hands and clenched it in my fist.


“Come!” he stretched forth his hand. Pulling me by the palm, he pulled me back to my feet. “Care to take a seat?” Looking into the direction of his hand, I realized all this time I was leaning on a little brass horse, with a cloth saddle and a metal handle on its mane. I sat on it obediently, and he pushed a 10 cent coin into the rectangular mouth beside the horse.


The horse galloped slowly, and a melancholic melody hummed from the belly of the horse. He smiled and bade me farewell, and turned off to walk, leaving me alone, on the galloping and singing horse, under the rain again. My eyes fixed on his disappearing figure and became moist again. Quickly wiping the tears away, scared that he would suddenly turn around and catch me crying, a little light shone in my chambers, bringing warmth to the once cold and frozen heart.

Later that cold morning, the rain stopped, along with the bitterness and self-pity in me. I knocked on every restaurant until finally one kind owner paid me 20 cents per day to wash his dishes. From the dirty sink I moved to the fiery wok and kept my earnings in the very same pocket that kept my lollipop. Still nicely in its wrapper. Still sitting on the wooden stick. Still in one complete piece.


Until one night in the workers dorm, a reincarnation of the kid back in the orphanage grabbed my lollipop as I took it out to keep my wages. After a hefty tussle, he dropped the lollipop, splitting the perfect circle into two crooked halves.



“I know it’s broken, and it’s not a new one,” I mumbled to the old man. The old man was reluctant to accept.


“It’s very much a part of me. It’s my childhood. I hope you won’t find it too little for your children.”


I just want them to have what I had.


Warmth. Love. Kindness.


From a man that made me who I am today.


He walked out of the door and squatted in front of his children. Through the tiny opening of the door not shut tight, the little children’s eyes were wide open. Dazzling and sparkling blue eyes. The old man shakingly opened the plastic wrapper and gave each kid one half of the lollipop. Then both the children lurched at the old man, wrapping their arms around his neck, half lollipop still in their small palm, hysteric and happy.


My heart melted at that sight. And 10 years ago, I resented that scoundrel that broke my lollipop.



Then the two children mounted the brass horse, and the horse sprang to life, humming the same tune as it did 20 years ago. The boy had his arms wrapped over his sister’s waist, both trying to hum to the tune of the singing horse. Two happy little children on a horse, under the watchful eyes of their old and sick father.


The old man looked into the store, our eyes met. A small curve broke from the corners of his lips, and his eyes were bright with gratitude. A gentle nod, and I replied in same likeness.


Funny how fate intertwined. After working in the restaurant for 15 years, I decided to open a book shop. Walking down the lonely streets on a chilly autumn, I stopped in front of the brass horse. I smiled as the memories came rushing back into my mind, and I looked around to see if anything has changed.


Nothing has changed, except that the store in front of the brass horse had a cardboard behind the glass door.


TO LET


Was that coincidence, fate, luck…?


“How much does this book cost?”


I was too engrossed that I failed to realize a customer was patiently waiting in front of my fortress, crossed and ready to invade my tiny castle. I hurried back, apologizing for my distraction, and quickly answered his questions when something lying on the table caught my eyes.


Was it from you? I asked. “No,” said customer. “An old man with a thick coat left it on your table… I think he just walked out from behind…”


I grabbed it and ran to the back of my store. “Merry Christmas! Keep the book!” I shouted without looking back at the bewildered customer. Lurching at the back door, I jumped onto the back alley just in time to see the same disappearing figure, with an umbrella over his head, wearing the same leather boots and the same woolen overall.


The drizzle that fell made me feel small again. 20 years and the memory now were relived in reality. And nothing had changed. Through the moist eyes came a blurry vision of the very same man walking down the street. In my hand was the exact same lollipop with swirling colours in a wrapper on a wooden stick. Standing under the rain again, the same tears of gratitude and joy rolled down both sides of the cheek that eventually mixed with the drizzling rain.


But this time, I wasn’t afraid of letting the tears fall.

7 comments:

mandy~ said...

Captivating Jo.. intricately and indeed, delicately written.. Kudos for the time and thought spent on this ya. And quite interestingly... I can imagine a screenplay of this story man ;p

Fiona said...

if you don't study medicine, i am definitely sure will make a very outstanding script writer. no kidding. keep on writing. it's always wonderful to read your stories. =)

Anonymous said...

a really good piece..
was extremely tremendously touching..
as i read and allowed imagination to take over, it really would make a moving show.
reminded me a little of the movie The Guardian by Kevin Costner..

-random reader-

gloria :) said...

Great story, jo..
Moving..

Anonymous said...

Hey Jo..
Awesome read, as always :)
Btw, the last two pics- were they taken in Kuching airport and in Sarawak?? Was just wondering... :)
Take care and rock on!
Luv,
A Friend :)

Foreigner (c^3) said...

hey jo...wow, this is the first story i've read of yours on my way down your blog. you sure ur gonna be a doc? i think u'd do just as well as a writer/author. seriously. you literally made my heart melt with this one -- i can't wait to read the rest of your pieces! :)

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