photo credits here
by jolie fong
Hailing a cab or even hopping on a bus from the sequestered cluster of flats I reside in would have been infinitely easier than enduring the suffocating walk to the train station via the rotting old underpass. Every morning, I make my way through that corridor, flanked by a kafkaesque display of dirt, grime, and vines which nestle themselves among the musty blackness and creep dangerously towards me as I walk, alone. Sure, it resembles the remains of a catastrophic jungle accident, but to me, it was more of an undiscovered, dust-clad gem in the very much ordinary city.
For most commuters, walking to and riding the train is a painfully quotidian journey, completely wrung dry of any atypical experiences. It makes me feel fortunate that I get to bypass a pretty sanctuary every single day. However, it is not the reason why I still rise at the crack of dawn just to endure such a straining walk.
It is because, somewhere in the middle of this distorted space, there sits a hunched up figure, so incredibly hard to spot. But the second I did, I could not pull my eyes away.
My intuition told me he was just further up. I let my gaze search the greasy walls, and as I predicted, he was sitting a few footsteps ahead of me sitting against a wall, his hunched posture dappled with flecks of sunlight, otherwise camouflaged by his unusually besmirched body. As I moved forward along with the sun, the flecks of sunlight on his skin spread like leprosy, and now I could clearly see his features through the filth.
His face was as crumpled and defeated as a failed origami piece, and his eyes were like little beads peeking out from the valleys of his blemished face. They were a clouded green, and reminded me of emeralds. His nose was a little button, and his lips were cracked and peeled like worn paint. He donned a black jacket which fitted his rotting, bony figure as well as a rice sack would, and scruffy jeans. Compared to me, a spruce and tidily dressed office worker, he was nothing.
Perhaps I was simply hallucinating, but there was a dulled light reflected in those ravaged eyes and a faint shadow of his former self cast- that of avarice, and finally, contrition. In fact, those feelings seemed to overwhelm even the man himself.
The man remained slouching, on top of a cardboard piece swarming with pests. I gingerly approached him. Relief hit as his perpetually wary stare relaxed as he recognised me. He held up a battered hand, peppered with scars and bruises, to wave. I stopped right in front of him, and kneeled down, so that my shaved face was level with his matted one. My hand instinctively creeped into my bag, and pulled out a fresh, warm bun in a plastic bag bought from the bakery across where I lived. As expected of a street beggar, his eyes lit up, and his hands quickly cupped under the bread I held out. Sitting before me was a once glorious man now reduced to a starving mongrel who hadn’t eaten for days, his breathing ragged, and face beseeching.
Encapsulated in this delicate time where I had someone who’d obey my every command, I could feel nothing but pity for this dog. My hand relaxed, and the bread fell into his calloused hands. He grasped the edges of the bag tightly, as though a strong wind would come and blow it far away from us. Although it was no more than a plain bun, the rate at which it was demolished in his jaws left even me salivating. Except for the rapid chewing, we stayed as still as statues, as time gradually outstripped us.
Finally, I moved on to the last part of the routine. I made sure his eyes were transfixed on mine and not the food, and asked,
“Boss, do you remember me?’’
He looked at me, and paused mid-chew.
“…You said we would make it big together. And we did.”
“Where has it all gone, boss? Where?”
Of course, only a fool would believe that a madman would provide a coherent response, let alone speak a single word. And I certainly was a fool, to believe he would give me an answer.
But talk sense into a fool, and he will give you a foolish answer. I believed there was still remnants of the prodigious man in this shell of a pauper. As long as I walked this path, there would come a day he would answer.
I stood, stretching my slightly aching legs, and continued down the path far away from this desolate sanctum, back to the perfectly normal brouhaha of a perfectly normal life.