A box of mysteries

A box of mysteries

Vivian Lam Weng-yan's story is the first in our winter collection. It won the junior category in South China Morning Post and RTHK's Top Story competition sponsored by Samsung and Pan Macmillan

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Winter story_L
Illustration: Brian Wang/SCMP
It was just an ordinary day.

I guess that's how a story is supposed to start, isn't it? An unexpected turn caused by a simple change of heart. And believe it or not, this is a true story.

It was just another frustrating day at school. Homework to finish, books to revise from, new music pieces to learn ... and then back to books. Yes, the daily routine of Vivian Lam.

As I walked along the road down to the bus stop, humming out of tune, something caught my eye. It was nothing special. It was just a person you often see but always ignore as you walk down the street to buy food or snacks, or any other "necessity" you might think you need. A scavenger.

Scavenger. That's quite a nasty name for someone just trying to earn a living, isn't it?

The scavenger in front of me was in his mid-70s, or maybe younger, if in fact his looks had been ruined by the hard life he had obviously led.

He had a crooked back which allowed him to push his cart with so much force. It was piled dangerously high with corrugated cardboard. He staggered like a toddler, but his face was set in a look of sheer determination. I had probably seen him before, not that I would normally notice.

I don't know why he caught my eye at that moment. It's normal to see these people in this neighbourhood in Kwun Tong. There is a wet market where lots of people pick up empty boxes. Maybe it was the way sweat dripped off him in fat bullets. Or maybe it was the way some of the smaller cardboard pieces fell through their restraints to the ground. Perhaps it was his bitter yet dogged look, or the way he tried to push himself harder because he needed to, because he had to.

As I arrived at the end of the bus line, I noticed him slowing down as he reached the slope. Walking down was easy, quite relaxing even. But walking up? I should think not! Not to mention having to push that massive cart which looked like a dead weight.

I fidgeted a little. Should I help him? As a normal Hongkonger, I would certainly not help. Maybe I should have just stood aside and felt grateful it was not me. But my subconscious scolded me a little.

"Sympathy, Vivian, sympathy!" it said. I sighed at being so sentimental, and then smiled bitterly at my own foolishness. It wouldn't hurt just to lend him a hand, right?

I walked up to him and wordlessly grabbed the cart handle, taking the weight and feeling it move. I saw he was looking at me as if I had just come from Mars, but I ignored him. I had made the commitment, so I just kept pushing the cart.

When we got to the top of that long, steep hill, I stopped. I turned to head back to the bus stop, and maybe also to wipe the oil, grease and sweat off my hands. I didn't want to embarrass the old man by helping him. They are proud to support themselves.

"Wait, kid!"

Was he talking to me? I walked a little faster. It was, as far as I was concerned, a tactical retreat.

"Stop there, kid!"

I stopped and looked back.

He was staring at me with disbelief and gratitude and simply said: "You helped me."

I nodded tentatively.

He continued to stare at me. "That was nice of you, kiddo," he said. "No one has helped me before. Not once. Every day I walk along this street, and nobody even spares me a glance. Street rats, they say. Lowlifes. How can they possibly lend me a hand when they despise me?"

His back straightened, and his eyes glowed with strange wisdom. "Until you. You helped me, even though it dirtied your hands and wasted your time. You have a good heart, kid." He stuck his greasy hand into his pocket and came back up with a little wooden block. "Take this. It is a gift."

Was this real? Or just some fantasy? "What should I do with this?" I asked. I seriously considered throwing it away, not that I would do it in front of him.

The man just smiled at me. "It is a gift. Give it to one of your loved ones and just have patience."

I stared at him incredulously. "Sorry, are you expecting me to believe this? I'm not some 12-year-old kid any more! Besides, I do watch a lot of TV, just so you know. Will something jump out of the box and eat everyone?" But even as the words came out of my mouth, I felt stupid, and blushed.

The man laughed - I could see his wrinkles fading - and waved his hands a bit. "This is actually the first time I have heard someone so direct! But no, this is not some Pandora's box." And then, in a more serious tone: "You must give it to someone you love."

I took the block .... no, a box, and poked at it. It was hard, rigid, like any ordinary wooden box. "What does it do?" I asked while looking up.

But he had already gone, leaving nothing behind but the box in my hand. "Don't open it yourself," he called out.

I carried this mystery back to my home, head filled with confusion, doubt and fear. Why could I not open it? Was it cursed? Then why should I give it to someone I love? And just who was that old man?

I groaned. This was ridiculous! My heart urged me to have a peek, and I was tempted. A box filled with mysteries. It could be splendid.

"Hey, what's that?" My little sister, Molly, popped up beside me.

I whipped my head back so fast that I nearly strained my neck. "It's none of your business. Go away." I waved my hand to try to shoo her away. Is every little sister destined to annoy her siblings?

Molly rolled her eyes. "I recognise your I-am-thinking-about-something-important-but-I-have-no-idea-how-to-deal-with-it look, my dear sister. Come on, tell me." She blinked with her puppy eyes which I cannot resist.

I told her everything, from how I met the strange man, to him giving me the box. After I had finished, she stared at me for a moment and then stuttered, "And ... you believe him?" and the whole bedroom was filled with her shrieking laughter.

I told her - and myself - to calm down. When she had, she just said, "I know you're not that bright sometimes, but do you seriously have no brain cells left? This is no fairy tale, princess. This is reality. Do I need to find a prince for you?"

Before she could crack any more jokes, I stopped her by pinching her left cheek. "Hey! Can't I dream a little?"

She rolled her eyes a little in response and then fell into silence. I could almost hear her brain ticking with ideas and when she opened her mouth again, I was a little surprised to hear her say, "I'll open it."

Her eyes brightened. "It won't even break the rules! I know deep down in your stone-cold heart you love me, and you are not allowed to open it yourself! This is perfect!"

In a way, it was true; but on the other hand, what if something evil, or worse, disaster and death came from it? I could not bear the thought. As I stood, thinking in horror, Molly snatched the wooden box right out of my not-so-tight grip and - after taking in a lungful of air - she opened it.

Then the sky darkened, the ground trembled, voices raced out from the box ... and this was all in my imagination. Nothing happened.

"Well, this is ... not very dramatic, like I expected." I cleared my throat a little. My sister just shrugged at me and looked into the box, then shook it upside down.

"I hate to break it to you, but it's empty," my sister said, sounding slightly pitying.

I shrugged, and pretended that I didn't care. My sister patted my shoulder gently. "At least it's beautiful," she said.

Indeed it was. With delicate engraving on the sides, it was simple yet elegant. I must say I liked that box, even though it did come from a slightly creepy old man.

"Keep it, Molly," I decided. The man did say I should give it to one of my loved ones.

Molly's eyes widened. "I just said I would open it! You can keep it!" She tried to put it back into my hands but I simply pushed it back.

"No. You keep it. I should give it to you, like that old man said. He gave this gift to me and now I give it to you."

Molly bit her lip and stuttered, "Well ... it is quite nice ... I must say ... are you sure?"

I nodded firmly. That's what sisters are for. And I remembered what the old man said. Have patience. I can do that.

And so days turned to weeks, weeks to months. Nothing happened. Eventually, I forgot about it, except when I walked into my sister's bedroom and saw that little wooden box, now a jewellery box, sitting on the bookshelf. She truly treasured it.

Months turned to years. I'm an adult now and the box is still safely kept in my sister's new flat in Kowloon Tong, where she lives with her boyfriend Arthur.

"Hello!" I smile widely at the sight of my sister greeting me at the door. We still meet every week. But there's a strange look on her face which I can't read. "What's wrong, Molly?" I ask in concern.

"Do you remember the box you brought home years ago?" she asks. I nod. This is just weird. "Yes, I do. Actually I was just thinking of it when I was heading here. What about it?"

Molly takes a deep breath and answers. "You know Arthur is quite an expert on antiques? He recognised the patterns of the engraving on the sides of the box. He got someone to examine it and turns out -" she stops for a moment then continues "- it is an antique from the Qing dynasty. And it is worth millions of dollars."

My jaw drops. "Seriously? After all these years waiting?"

"You did say the old man said something about having patience."

"Now that I think about it, how did he know it would be recognised? Did he know I would give it to you? Or did he know this, so he told me to give it to ..."

Molly interrupts me hastily. "You will drive yourself to madness if you keep thinking about it."

"Then what are you going to do with it?"

Molly just smiles. "I'm not going to sell it, if that's what you are thinking. I think," she frowns, "it is the thought that really matters. Giving something so special to someone because you have helped them is not something you would do normally. But he gave it to you, and you gave it to me, even though you loved it. This is something nice from my childhood and I'm not going to sell it for money." She blushes at the emotions she has just revealed.

"I don't think I really put what I'm thinking into words very well."

"No, you did just fine." I also smile and pinch her cheek, just to remind her of our childhood days. She pretends to scowl but giggles seconds later. She then grips my hand.

"Come in before the meal gets cold."

Thinking about it, I realised the gift wasn't really the box, but the thoughtfulness and love that was brought by it. I grin and let my sister lead me into her home.

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