photo credits here, edited.

by Teoh Jing Yang

He had a knack for picking things up; newspapers that whirled in the breeze, plastic bottles collecting in alleys, crisp autumn leaves tucked in cosy corners, and the occasional packet of rice leftover.

As a child, he collected copper coins and bottle caps, buried them beside his father’s assortment of carnations. The shirts he grew out of would disappear into the shed in the backyard; and his mother came to notice the perpetual lack of clothes, but her suspicions were left unconfirmed.

When he learnt to read, he progressed to the thin yellow pages of decade old books. He hid them high in the trees along the nest of birds, shoved them into shelves of library books, bought more at book sales, highlighted quotes, and mailed them to random addresses he found on the phone book.

Once, his mother found him a clock with gears that still ran, going tick tick tick, but its time was long past, and hands frozen on the twentieth minute of the seventh hour. Adamant and enthusiastic, he tried to fix it; dismantled the clock, put it back, dismantled it again but despite his greatest wishes, the minute hand remained resigned to a fate of stagnation. He took a summer job and brought money to a clock maker, only to find the machinery within had worn out. He was told to swap out the machinery, but he merely shook his head and left the store, the clock grasped between pale shaking fingers.

He never was an outspoken child, but over the years, he grew more shy and reserved, mostly spending time at home caring for his mother. She had after all, lost her limbs in a car accident; and as the seasons piled upon the wrinkles on her face, she found herself struggling more with simple tasks, so the burden fell on him to handle her basic necessities. When his aunt comes over to visit, which happened every weekend, he would escape to stroll the streets, indulging his childhood love for forsaken objects. His taste changed, so even though he still could not resist the temptation of picking and hiding things in obscure corners, he now found more pleasure in the loneliness of abandoned haunts. He would roam the foreign neighbourhoods, slithering past the crowd, a ghost in search for hidden alleys and desolated parks. There, he would leave at the side, a plastic bag containing all the items he had picked up. There, he would sleep to the melody of the wind, and hum his little tunes.

He was never lonely, for he reasoned, that he was accompanied by the forlorn quietude of the world. And that he too was company, to the loneliest places on earth, the cracks of the world, where things just slip through. He never stays for long, and the only sign of human habitation were that of a plastic bag of foreign objects marking his presence, as well as a clock on standstill.

Eventually, his mother passed on, and he found more freedom to extend his adventures across cities and seasons, only taking up part-time jobs at his convenience, and for no more than three months at a go. But every year without fail, he would return to his childhood home for a day, now uninhabited and covered with wild growth.

In the backyard, he ritually removes the batteries from two clocks and leaves them by the others on the gravestones. And occasionally, he also caresses the cracks on the more weathered gravestone with the benign touch of endearment.


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