A fitting way to celebrate big day

A fitting way to celebrate big day

An impoverished mother and son can't put a price on love

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Illustration: Martin Megino

As Ah Ming gazed at the calendar, his eyes blinked rapidly in anticipation of the big day. "My birthday is coming!" he exclaimed, with a beaming smile which seemed to light up the room.

Like the rest of the 50-year-old building, the cramped flat in which Ah Ming lived with his mother, Ah Mui, initially seemed dour and dirty. But warmed by the hot summer sun, and cooled by the light breeze that blew through its open windows, the flat was a joyful home to the family of two and their passion for life.

Ah Mui frowned before asking: "So what would you like as a present?

The boy became serious for a moment, the smile freezing on his face. "I don't wish for anything but a good day," he replied, "for both of us."

Ah Mui smiled and nodded - it was the sort of answer she expected from her son.

Ah Ming swiftly changed the subject. "Hey mum, let me go and collect some boxes to take to the recycling station."

"Sure," she said, pulling out the cart for him.

As Ah Mui waved to him from the door, their neighbour Mrs Wong passed. She smiled warmly as Ah Ming disappeared down the stairs.

"I do admire you," said Mrs Wong. "Your child is such a well-disciplined kid."

"Yes, he is," Ah Mui agreed, a little ruefully. "He always tries to do everything on his own, without troubling me. Someone so well-behaved doesn't deserve to have been born into this incomplete family. It's not fair that he doesn't have a father as well as a mother."

"But that isn't your fault," Mrs Wong reassured her. "And life isn't easy for you either."

Ah Mui had never wanted to live like this but she had no alternative to leaving her husband. She had tried her best to stop him from beating her - she knew she could never win any confrontation - but it had been a living hell. She did worry Ah Ming's circumstances would cause him embarrassment at school. However, she refused to let him grow up in a violent home.

"Whenever Ah Ming asks me about his father, the horrible memories from the past always flood into my mind," she told her neighbour. "My head whirls and I lose my nerve. It's unfair on Ah Ming, but all I can do is cry."

Mrs Wong shook her head sympathetically. "You had to leave him - before he started hitting Ah Ming as well. And now look at your son. He is clever, independent and aware of his responsibilities. And he seems to learn from his mistakes."

"Yes, I am lucky," Ah Mui replied quietly.

"Not as lucky as he is to have been born into this family and have a mother who's lavished such care and love on him. You have done a great job raising him."

Ah Mui forced a smile of gratitude at her friend's comments. "But I do wonder if I can be a good mother if I don't have the resources to nurture him. His birthday is coming up and although I'm sure he wants something, he won't ever tell me what it is. He must assume I won't be able to get it."

"Of course, you are a good mother. Remember, one's fortune and fate should never be determined by just one's wealth. Trust yourself. When deciding what to get him, try to think of what he really needs."

On the way to the market, Ah Mui continued to ponder Ah Ming's gift. Maybe Mrs Wong was right. However, it was always challenging for Ah Mui to guess what her son wanted, and the question always bothered her.

As she walked past the shoe shop, she spotted a pair of brand-new canvas shoes. She thought they looked very glamorous and would really suit Ah Ming. But once she saw the price, she let out a deep sigh and left the shop.

And Ah Ming clearly knew the family was not in a good economic position. Despite the fact she had taken on several part-time jobs, her total income was still only enough to pay for three meals a day and the most basic of expenses.

Because she had to work so hard, there had been no option but to send Ah Ming to school on his own from the age of six. There's no doubt that teaching a child to be independent is a good thing. However, she regretted not having more time with her son, to identify his needs and help satisfy them.

She had not wanted Ah Ming to follow her path in life, which had been full of challenges and misfortune. But the family needed the money. So when he proposed he should collect paper boxes on the street, she had reluctantly agreed. As usual, Ah Ming had done a good job and the extra cash he gave her helped a lot.

For his part, Ah Ming always enjoyed helping his mother. Arriving at the recycling station, he smiled as he handed over the paper-boxes he had collected to the manager.

"Thanks, Ah Ming," said the man, as he weighed the boy's load. "Huh, it looks like you've had a good day. Here's your money."

Ah Ming examined the cash. "Wait. You've given me a few dollars more than they are worth." He offered some coins to the man. "Take this back."

"No, treat it as your reward. Someone like you deserves a little extra sometimes."

"But ..."

"Don't argue, just take it and buy what you want. Look at your canvas shoes - aren't they getting a little bit filthy? Why don't you buy yourself a new pair of shoes?"

"Thanks a lot!" Ah Ming said, before dashing off with a broad grin on his face.

As he ran through the streets, there was only one place he wanted to go. Sliding to a halt, he pressed his nose against the window of the shoe shop. There was a pair of canvas shoes they had in their display that, for some reason, he couldn't stop thinking about.

Of course, he would never have asked his mum to buy them for him; he knew very well it wasn't possible for the family budget to stretch to extras like new shoes.

Instead he had been working very hard so he could buy them for himself. Hadn't his teacher taught him that, if there was something a man wanted, he should take responsibility for getting it himself?

But, as he looked in the window, he saw that the shoes had disappeared from the display. He was stunned. His goal, through all those months of hard work, had simply vanished.

What could he now do but stand in front of the window, sighing with the utmost sadness and regret?

He had expected to buy a birthday present for himself but that was no longer possible. What could he do to get over his disappointment and find a new goal? Suddenly it struck him: why not buy something for mum? He scanned the shoe shop display, searching for shoes that would suit her.

There was one pair that did catch his eye. They were not as glittering as those worn by most women, but he was impressed by how protective and comfortable they looked. He decided to buy them. Walking home, Ah Ming felt ecstatic as he contemplated giving his mum her present. He did study hard so one day he could take good care of her, but for now it was her efforts that provided for him and gave him the environment he could learn in.

He had never been able to go on a trip anywhere, yet he never blamed his mother. Instead, he looked up to her for her selfless contribution to the family and for the way she had nurtured him.

A present was one small way of saying thank you to her - and also, sorry. Ah Ming did not know who his father was and, although it always felt like a brutal thing to do, he had repeatedly asked his mother about him.

Whenever he mentioned his father, she would immediately burst into tears. It was obviously a painful and sensitive subject for her. Knowing what the consequences were likely to be, for some time Ah Ming had chosen not to question his mother about the missing member of their family.

Early the next morning, Ah Mui woke even earlier than usual. "Happy birthday, Ah Ming! See what I have bought you as a present."

"Wait, Mum," he replied. "I have also bought you a present. See if they fit."

Ah Ming and Ah Mui exchanged packages and immediately started to unwrap the gift the other had given them.

Ah Ming let out a whoop of delight when he saw that his mother had bought the pair of shoes he had longed for. What joy!

Meanwhile, his mother was totally flabbergasted to discover her present was also a brand new pair of shoes. Utterly touched, she burst into tears, before putting on her shoes and embracing her son.

With smile on its face, the sun shone straight into their flat, adding to the warmth of their humble home.

This is the fifth finalist in Young Post's 2011 Summer Story competition, sponsored by Dymocks, in which HK$3,000 worth of book vouchers are up for grabs. Each week we will publish one of the finalists' stories, with the winning entry appearing in Young Post on September 3

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