This is the winning entry in Young Post’s Winter 2015 Short Story Competition. Elly will receive an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite and vouchers.
Kindness. Noun. 1. The quality of being kind. 2. Performing an action that is kind.
Intriguing. And most helpful. That definitely explained what the word “kindness” meant. Besides, wasn’t “kind” some sort of category?
I flicked through the pages of the 2015 edition of the dictionary, which I downloaded onto my phone yesterday to revise for my history assessment. The words used 250 years ago sounded so foreign coming out of my mouth, and I knew it wasn’t from bad linguistic skills. “Kind. Ness. Kind ... ness.” I muttered out the wretched word, trying to sound it out for my speaking exam. The syllables sounded harsh and brittle off the tip of my tongue. Only on the first one, and I was already hopelessly stuck.
There were two entries for the word “kind”. One was the noun. The other was an adjective. I’d never heard the word being used that way before.
Kind. Adjective. Having or showing a friendly, generous and considerate nature. Affectionate or loving.
Upon reading that, I almost snorted out loud in disbelief. The optimism of the people in the early 21st century! What did they think they were living in, a fairytale? Hadn’t they heard of the moral code instilled into every young child: power and trickery leads to victory?
Or had they not been taught the ubiquitous fable, about the mouse and the lion? The foolish lion had imprudently set the cunning mouse free, and the mouse came back to, quite literally, stab the lion in the back, and feast upon its flesh.
An abrupt and impatient rapping on the marble counter brought me out of my musings. I looked up, my face effortlessly slipped back into my mask used at work, a neutral, but scornful expression, effectively conveying the message that I had better things to be doing with my time.
“Registration, isn’t it? Hurry up. I need my form filled in. Now,” said the woman. Her clothes were a radiant blood red, symbolising her high status and power in society.
The government had recently passed a law stating the colour of people’s clothing had to reflect their wealth. The ranking went from the bolder, aggressive, sometimes even fluorescent shades for the richest in society, to the more muted colours, continuing downwards into pastel and bleached shades, and finally, just plain white for the poorest five per cent. With this system in place, you could easily distinguish the people you wanted to associate with. On normal days, the waiting halls would be flaming ablaze with every shade of the sunset, while during epidemic seasons, in actual times of need, the colours would be far duller.
I fought to restrain myself from rolling my eyes, as I pulled out the registration tablet, and slammed it onto the counter, narrowly missing her delicate, elongated fingers. People who dressed flamboyantly often acted like they owned the city. To be fair, they did, even if it wasn’t official. “Name. Symptoms. Fingerprint,” I drawled out in a monotonous voice, pointing to each section respectively. The woman tossed her hair behind her, nodding her head arrogantly in affirmation, and pressed her thumb onto the screen.
I’m reliably informed her name is Dorothy Price, a highly influential figure in society, shareholder in many thriving companies ... in short, not someone to aggravate. I plastered a fake smile onto my face, as I told her in a much more amiable tone that she was looking for the ENT ward, third floor, nine rooms to the left. Without any acknowledgement or gratitude, she turned, and stalked away in that direction, but not before glancing back before adding scathingly, “You ought to treat patients with more respect. You should have asked about the weather.”
Noon. Lunchtime rounds. The delectable smells were already wafting over from the rich, heavenly meals. Oh, no, not for me, of course. This was strictly reserved for the brightly clothed patrons of the hospital. My stomach grumbled loudly in protest as I trudged to the counter of piping hot food in resignation. Next to the counter, sat an old, rusty trolley.
I’d have to be careful with these people – as the elite class of Hong Kong, they could file complaints at the drop of a hat. I’d learned courteous small talk generally worked best. Nothing too depressing (which they could take offence at), nothing too merry (which they could take offence at, given the harrowing tragedy of their broken finger or equally trivial malady), nothing too boring (they might unjustly come to the horrifying conclusion I didn’t consider them to be the well-versed conversationalists they all were). Stick to trivial, but engaging topics. Appear interested, and politely inquire into their health. The weather was always a good one. Simple.
Last year's Summer Story competition winner also wrote about the future, but focusing on the environment
The trolley, however, was a different matter entirely. A hundred chipped bowls wobbled on the unstable shelf. A large vat of brown broth, tinged with pools of oil at the edges, sloshed about nauseatingly. These patients wouldn’t have to be handled as delicately, they wouldn’t have the audacity to complain – they were constantly frowned upon regardless of what they did. All that was required was the food made it onto the desks attached to the cots with the occasional greeting, message of comfort, and monosyllabic answers to their question. Equally simple.
I decided to begin with the left wing of the building, the filthier, run-down version of the right wing. The two wings had to be strictly segregated. Once, a young toddler dressed in discoloured clothes had breached this rule, and clambered over to the other side. Chaos had ensued; the parents of the child were interrogated, and the hospital’s name was slandered for months.
Sneering at the peeling wallpaper, placing my glare just slightly above the first man’s head, I ladled some broth into a bowl, the sticky brown remnants sliding off the ladle with a plop, and placed it into his gnarled outstretched hands. I glanced at his foot, heavily bandaged, and propped up onto the table attached to the cot. “Your foot will get better. Eventually. As long as it doesn’t get infected ... which is highly probable.” The man stared blankly at me.
“Cold comforts.” Despite the name, they couldn’t really be considered comforts of any sort. They were empty phrases, containing no sympathy or consolation, despite what it sounded like. It was easier to offer a few words of “cold comfort”. Easier than having to pretend to care, or even worse, for a few of the pastel-coloured, pretending not to care. It was so much easier to bring someone down with a few well-chosen, cutting words. Far easier than to get involved ...
Moving along to the next room, in the corridor, I found a mother, sobbing silently, carrying an infant swaddled in smelly, yellowing cloth. The mother frantically gestured me over, and overridden with curiosity, I felt as if I had no choice other than to comply with her wishes. Babbling incoherently (something about Peter getting lost, and her infant daughter feeling very ill), she pointed at a trail of muddy footprints, leading and going beyond some obscure door that not many knew about. Behind the door was a shortcut to the right wing.
This was bad. Actually it was disastrous.
I asked the other staff for help, to no avail.
“I’m so sorry, I’d help if I could,” they all said, not sounding remorseful in the least, “But unfortunately, I’m off shift now.”
Biting my lip, so the string of insults wouldn’t come streaming out, I weaved my way through the clamouring masses, who were pointing at the door and whispering to one another. Darting through the door frame, I came out on the other side just in time to see the uneven hem of a fraying pickle green coat, and the squelching sounds of his rain boots that accompanied it, disappear round a corner.
The boy, who I presumed to be Peter, stood at the door of the right wing’s playroom, his face lit up in wonder, as his gaze fell upon books, art materials, toys, and so much more that he had never seen before. The boy started to cross over the threshold, but paused in mid-air, as if struck by lightning, deliberating whether or not he should actually enter.
Seizing the moment, I edged my way across, leaning right against a wall, attempting to remain as inconspicuous as possible. No need to alert and overexcite the women chattering and gesturing at each other vigorously. There was no need to draw even more attention from the man eyeing me with prejudiced distrust. Slowly, carefully. The distance between Peter and I closed, inch by inch, metre by metre. Fifteen, ten, five. And then, finally, unable to resist the temptation, he stepped in.
I watched, shirking away slightly, so I could not be linked to the incident, as Peter plodded onto the carpet, his filthy boots leaving a trail behind him, and picked up the toys. A young girl stared at him. You could tell she radiated richness. It was obvious she had never seen someone like him before; she had always grown up with children from families of equal wealth and power. Peter stared back.
Without much warning, the girl asked if Peter wanted to play. He said yes, and soon they were chatting like old friends, about things that no-one really had the time or patience to talk about anymore.
Seeing people walk past, I casually tilted my head away.
A soft melodious noise emitted from the room.
Their laughter was lilting, reverberating around the room. The frozen corner of my mouth couldn’t help but turn up. The innocent outburst drew the attention of many nearby.
A scene that could have previously only appeared in fiction, this picturesque moment left many gaping mouths of disbelief, regardless of the brightness of their clothing, from the assembled crowd witnessing the spectacle. The girl’s mother, Dorothy, was spluttering indignantly, shrieking on about peasants, and to my utter bewilderment, no-one seemed to care. She was not so subtly pushed to the back of the crowd by many rolling eyes.
I walked up to her. “Um ... nice weather?” I snickered, not making any attempts to conceal my smirk. Judging from the shade of red on her face, I don’t think she was too pleased.
The boy, grinning madly, delighted at finding a new friend, gave the girl a hug, all he could offer her considering he had nothing. The young girl beamed, took a small plush toy from a felt pocket on her creaseless dress, and offered it to the boy.
I turned on my phone, and scrolled back to the 2015 edition of the dictionary, and went back to the page I was on.
Kindness. Noun. 1. The quality of being kind. 2. Performing an action that is kind.
Maybe the people from 150 years ago weren’t as ridiculously optimistic as I thought. Maybe the jumbled puzzle that the brightly clothed called “fairness” could be put back together, piece by piece. Perhaps the stubborn, unrelenting corners that simply wouldn’t fit could be blunted, and it could one day be truly achievable. Maybe there was some kindness left in our cold world after all.