2018 Winter Short Story: The old man, the brother, the social worker, and the sounds of a lifetime of memories

2018 Winter Short Story: The old man, the brother, the social worker, and the sounds of a lifetime of memories

When the one thing you have left to live for is taken away, how do you keep on living?

This story was written by Clement Ho, 17, Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School student.

Each week during the holidays, we will publish a story from one of the finalists of our 2018 Winter Short Story Competition. Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, and each finalist will receive a copy of it. The winning entry will appear in Young Post in April.


The old man

The old man rocked gently to the cacophony of the night – the joyous cheers and singing from people celebrating the festive season. The chair rocked ever more slowly, like a broken metronome, until the rocking was no more and the old man sat with his hands hanging by his sides. In his lap was a radio. It was covered in rust, but the old man had been cradling it like a baby until his arms had slipped to his sides. His eyes rolled into the back of his skull as he slumped forward; the radio fell from his lap and shattered into tiny pieces, the noise of the crash accompanying the sound of New Year fireworks.

The Christmas worker

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Everywhere you go;

Take a look at the five and ten

It’s glistening once again

With candy canes and silver lanes aglow.”

The first time I met him was the winter right after his brother died. I took the job for the money, first and foremost, and I’ve already forgotten the other reasons. As I reached his apartment, I could already hear the sound of music playing. It was an old Christmas song that I didn’t know the name of and I didn’t care enough to know the name of. When the social worker opened the door I saw him, with his lopsided smile and eyes that were clouded over.

“Welcome! Come in! Sit!”

He gestured vaguely in my general direction.

“Sure.”

The job lasted until just before New Year’s Eve. I was told to walk him round here and there and buy him anything he wanted. Sometimes it was barbecued pork with rice and sometimes it was maltose crackers. He often pointed to empty alleyways and shops and buildings, making some remarks.

“When I was young, I read comic books here, the boss always sang opera songs.”

“The butcher, he always called me over on my way home from school and gave me small pieces of char siu.”

“This is where we would set up tables and eat dinner, you would always hear the wok go sizzle sizzle, and the chitchat, and the laughter.”

And he would go on and on and I would nod from time to time to show that I was listening.

“I don’t hear so well now,” he often said. “Things are so quiet now.”

Really, it was just a couple of weeks of this. Then when the last day of the job finally arrived, I said goodbye and I went back to doing all the holiday stuff that I had been looking forward to.

That was the last time I ever saw him.

The brother

Caring for your elderly brother isn’t easy. Caring for your blind elderly brother even less so.

“I don’t hear so well now,” he often says. “Things are so quiet now.”

Every day we go to the market. He sits outside while I buy food for lunch and dinner. When I return, I always see him smiling, entranced by the chop-chop sounds of the butcher’s knife, the splish-splash of wet hosepipes and wet boots on the wet floor, and women yelling “Cheap vegetables! Cheap vegetables!”. He always pleads with me to let him sit and listen a little longer. His face looks so innocent and happy that I want to button his sweater and pat his head. Maybe it reminds him of the days we would play hopscotch and marbles on the street corner, until our mother would yell “Dinner time!” from the apartment, and the sounds of chopsticks and bowls rejoicing together.

On our way home we buy ice cream. He tugs on my arm, hearing the music from the old radio before we even turn the corner.

I promised I will take him to see doctor today to check out his ear. I think he is okay. I hope he is okay. “No problem, all healthy, strong as an ox” type of okay.

The old man

The old man sat on a wooden chair in a room baked in bright white light. It was completely silent saved for the humming of air conditioning and the buzzing of fluorescent lights. The doctor sat with one leg crossed over the other, holding a thick pad of notes, which he flicked through without ever looking up at the old man. Not that the old man would be able to see anyway.

“Please take a seat in here,” the doctor said, gesturing to a booth on the other side of the room.

The old man stood up and took the outstretched hands of his brother, who gently guided him towards the sealed glass booth. The glass door opened without any creaking and the old man climbed awkwardly inside.

“Put on the pair of headphones.”

There was a great deal of shuffling and fumbling.

“I’m going to play a series of noises. They’ll either come from your left or the right speaker. Press the button to indicate which side they are coming from.”

Then the door to booth was closed, and it was completely soundproof.

As the series of beeps played into the man’s headphones, his mind drifted back to a childhood memory of a smiling doctor and an office bathed in yellow, with walls covered in a light blue wallpaper dotted with fluffy clouds, and decorated with stickers. He imagined the doctor smiling at him with a pair of kind eyes, with a pencil in his right hand and a treat in his left hand, although the old man was probably too old for treats.

The bleeps were not bleeps anymore. They had become the frequent ding-ding of trams which he remembered riding as a child, while tightly clutching his mother’s hand. Then they became the honks of ferries as they sailed along a tapestry of stars woven into the black.

They became the clattering of bowls and dishes and spoons and chopsticks, and of the hundreds and thousands of mahjong tiles shuffled together at once, all the things he could never see and only hear when he was a child as he hid between the table legs, looking at the shuffling of feet that mirrored the excited and agitated chatter above his head. The sounds merged until they became one piece of music, an orchestra playing the symphony of a million lives.

But there were no dings or honks or clatter beyond the four walls of the soundproof booth. There was only the steady ticking of the clock, as trepidation filled the air. Beads of sweat were appearing on the forehead of the old man’s brother faster than he could wipe them away with his tattered hanky. The doctor was sitting back in his chair, toying with the buttons of his white coat with one hand, and resting his chin on the other. Finally he said,

“You can come out now.”

The doctor picked up a pen, crossed his legs and made a few marks on a form, while the brother immediately rose to open the door of the booth and escort his brother back to the wooden chair, clutching the arm of the old man as if he were a small child who would run away.

The doctor put the pen back into the pen stand. The noise as the metal tip hit the cup alerted the blind man and he instantly sat up straight.

“Well, I can see nothing wrong with his ears,” said the doctor. “Except for the usual deterioration that comes with ageing. But that’s normal.”

He drummed the table and extended his fingers outward, curling the thumb and forefinger into an “O”.

“He’s fine. All healthy, strong as an ox.”

The social worker

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Toys in every store

But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be

On your own front door.”

For a social worker, getting a happy, gentle, easy-going patient like the blind old man is like winning the lottery.

I felt sorry for him, really. I found myself thinking what a pitiful life he must have led, never seeing himself or the face of his brother or anyone he loved. Now they are all dead.

After five flights of stairs I, was outside his apartment, and I could hear the noise emanating from his apartment. It was his old radio playing Christmas songs from the past, the ones that no one really remembers anymore. The door was locked so I knocked on it. After a few seconds it opened.

“Mr Chan, do you want to come in and have some tea?”

“Sure.”

You can still see the marks the bandage made around his forehead. He’s been caged in his apartment ever since the operation, only seeing daylight through the safety of the windows. He’s been told not to walk around alone, and I’ve been told to accompany him today.

He walked down the street with a slight stagger in his gait and his arms wrapped around mine. He looked around intently. I could feel his shoulders getting stiffer and his arms gripping tighter. We started walking when the sun was right above our heads, and we were still walking when the sun was level with us and the sky changed from light to deep blue.

During this whole time, there was hardly anyone on the street, only a few people rushing by with their heads bent. The streets were quiet save for the humming of Christmas light cables and music drifting from shop entrances. The skyscrapers towered over us and the old man looked around warily, as if being encroached on by these concrete giants.

He drank it all in until he was exhausted and we sat by the waterfront, looking at the same ferries that once made the honk-honk noises, until the sun went down and the lights went on one by one, and the red blue white yellow green lights seared the deep blue sky like a laceration. He looked at the passing ferry with his chin perched on his hands and his elbows perched on his lap like a little boy, although he was no longer smiling like a little boy.

The ferry was no longer bouncing gracefully on blue cloth embroidered with golden and silver thread. It grunted and heaved, struggling to stay afloat on the murky waters, clanging like chains.

We had dinner together. There were no more barbecued pork rice or beef tendon noodles or maltose biscuits. We settled for a Christmas meal of steak and fries and a big cup of Coca-Cola but the old man didn’t seemed to be hungry. When we got back to his apartment, he tugged my arm, and without looking at me, he said:

“Where did all the laughter and smiles go?”

That was the last time I ever saw him.

The old man

The old man rocked gently to the steady hum of the night.

Outside, Christmas lights shone brightly, and fireworks erupted, ushering in a new year as men and women of all ages yelled “It’s finally here!”.

The old man died.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
The sounds of a lifetime

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