The letter under the pillow

The letter under the pillow

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Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen

The letter arrived in a mysterious way - it turned up under my pillow. How it managed to get there, I have no idea. It was a typical Monday morning, 6.30am, and still dark outside. Despite its small, delicate appearance, the letter had managed to survive a night of my rolling around.

When I felt the papery texture of the envelope, my first thought was that I must have fallen asleep while reading my notes again. But as I held the brown envelope under the fluorescent lamp beside by bed, I realised this was definitely not the case.

On it was my full address, starting with the line: "Under the pillow". My jaw dropped, and my heart slowed to a near standstill. Then it occurred to me that it had to be one of my brother's practical jokes. Perhaps he had got the idea from the Harry Potter film we had watched the previous evening. How he put it under my pillow between then and this morning, I did not know, but if he had gone to such great lengths to pull it off, it was definitely worth reading.

I gently tugged at the seal of the envelope, determined not to tear it. For some reason, I hate tearing envelopes, and no matter how excited I was about opening the letter, I was always able to bottle up my impatience until the job was done. After 30 minutes of careful cutting, prising and so on, the envelope was open. I looked at my handiwork. Not a single tear in the wafer-thin envelope.

Then, all of a sudden, my mother's voice pierced my thoughts. "Hey, how come you're not up yet?"

I glanced at the clock. It was 6.59am. As I hurriedly threw on my clothes and shoes, I stuffed the letter into my pocket.

In a matter of moments, I was outside, waiting for the lift. I thought about the letter in my pocket, but my unzipped bag, unbuttoned shirt and untied shoelace were much more pressing issues. If I addressed them in the lift, I would no doubt draw disapproving stares from the other passengers, so I set about making myself presentable right away. No sooner had I finished tying my shoelaces than the lift announced its arrival with a metallic "ding", the sound echoing around the corridor as I gazed up into the puzzled eyes of the office workers I shared the first stage of my daily commute with every day. As I attempted to squeeze my way into the lift, I was met with an unsurprisingly firm wall of defiance from the occupants. I was used to this daily test of strength and endurance. With practice, even a young schoolboy can overcome the combined might of eight stubborn adults.

My policy is Lifo, ("last in, first out"). As soon as the doors opened at the ground floor, I dashed out and onto the busy street. My heart sank as I saw the bus was about to leave, and I sprinted as fast as I could, waving frantically at its rear view mirror. Fortunately, the taxi ahead of it was taking its time to make a move and I reached the bus in easy time.

But, as I boarded it, I was greeted by puzzled eyes. Silly me! It was not even my bus. As I got off, my face was so red I was surprised that cars were not pulling to a halt on the road. I slowly walked back the bus stop. My friends weren't there, which meant I must have missed the school bus. It had never happened before. The only other way to get to school was by a taxi, and I could not face going home and asking my mother for the money.

It was then I caught sight of a minibus - the perfect solution to my dilemma. The route of the mini-bus overlapped the route of my school bus for a short distance, so it should be possible to overtake the school bus, get off at a stop ahead of it and take the school bus from there.

I jogged towards the minibus and took the last seat available, which was the one directly behind the driver. At last, luck was on my side. I dug into my pockets, looking for change. But to my dismay all I could find in there was the letter that made me late and got me into this mess in the first place.

I continued to rummage in my pockets for change as the arm on the minibus' speedometer pushed higher and higher, sending my hear racing.

Meanwhile, the first stop we passed was deserted, but that did not strike me as unusual until we passed a second deserted stop. As the minibus continued to pass empty stop after empty stop, I began to feel increasingly uneasy. And at the speed it was travelling, the minibus should easily have overtaken the school bus by now.

I got off at the school bus' last stop. There was nobody there, but when I stole a quick glance at my watch it was only 7.10am. Perhaps I had overtaken the school bus without noticing it. But as I stood by the roadside in the choking fumes of the traffic, the reality began to sink in. I had missed the bus to school.

I crossed the road and began to wait for the next minibus to take me back home. The day was ruined, and all because I had woken up with a letter under my pillow - the absurdity of it, a letter I had not even got around to reading yet.

I dug into my pocket and fished out the now crumpled envelope. Gingerly, I opened it ... and, as I slipped out the letter, I felt a warm sensation course from my fingertips to my arms, to my bare neck, and, before too long, to every last cell in my body.

I shook my head in bewilderment. What was going on? Did the mysteries of this letter never end?

It was written on a plain sheet of paper, carefully folded three times, making it easy to slip out of the envelope.

The handwriting was breathtakingly beautiful, almost as if the craft that must have gone into the writing of it was beyond anything any mere mortal could have learned to do. It read:

Dear Chak-kong,

Knowing that you'd be really busy on Christmas Day, I wish you an early Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

From ...

I paused at the name at the bottom of the letter in confused bewilderment - Santa? What kind of trick was this that people were playing on me? Who wrote letters to people under the name of Santa, and for what reason?

As the minibus slowly crawled through the morning traffic, I continued to wonder why anyone would have written such a mysterious letter.

Half an hour later I was back at my front door. I guessed, with a little fast talking to my mother, I might just make it in time for my first class.

I knocked on the door and, to my surprise, it was my brother who opened it. Immediately, and to my surprise, when he caught sight of me - nervous, flustered and covered in sweat - he burst out laughing.

Annoyed, I demanded: "Why aren't you at school?"

"Look at the date, silly!" he said, as he stood aside to let me in.

I did not even need to look at the calendar for everything to start to fall into place and to begin to realise just how foolish I would have looked had one of my classmates seen me on the streets that morning. To be sure, it was Monday, but there was no school this Monday because it was the first Monday of the Christmas holidays. Suddenly, everything that had happened that morning started to make sense - the missing school bus and the empty bus stops ...

"Did you put a letter under my pillow last night?" I asked my brother.

"No," he replied innocently, still stifling giggles at my attempt to go to school on the first day of the holidays.

Our eyes met, and years of reading his expression told me that, even though he was laughing at me, he wasn't hiding anything. As I asked around, the same was true of everybody in my family.

I still don't know how that letter made its way under my pillow. But sometimes I wonder whether Santa mischievously made me late for the first day of my Christmas holidays.

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