This story was written by Jasmeen Kaur from St Clare’s Girls’ School.
Each week during the holidays, we will publish a story from one of the finalists of our 2019 Summer Short Story Competition. Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, which each finalist will receive a copy of. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 31.
The old lady limped as she walked through the park, looking through each and every garbage bin that might hold the “rubbish” she needed for her weekly allowance. With hunched shoulders, she leaned forward and peered into the bin. It was again empty, save for some plastic and tissue scraps. Looking to the side, she sighed and began walking again, watching the children run around chasing each other as they squealed with laughter.
The sight brought back memories of her childhood years back when Hong Kong was still under the white man’s rule, back when she and her four siblings would chase each other in front of their house. It was a sweet memory but it left an ache in her heart, reminding her of a family she no longer had, long gone, but never forgotten.
After rummaging through a few more rubbish bins, she trudged to the recycling shop, having found enough aluminium cans to pay for her meals. She prayed to the deities it would be her lucky day, that she’d earn more than usual. She stepped into the small, cluttered shop and walked towards the man.
“Grandma Chan, back again so quickly?” he greeted her. She had been in the shop just a couple of hours earlier.
She hummed, “I just need a couple more dollars. Is this enough for maybe five dollars?”
The guy peered down at her small plastic bag, containing just a handful of aluminium cans, knowing they wouldn’t suffice. But he was too soft-hearted to let down the old lady, so he quickly lied and gave her more than five dollars, hoping it might help stop her aimless walking through the streets, looking through every rubbish bin she saw.
“Grandma Chan, doesn’t the fruit money pay you well enough to stop this habit of yours?”
“Ah son, that money isn’t even enough to cover the rent these days. It’s been soaring these past couple years; soon enough I won’t even have enough to keep a roof over my head.” She chuckled to herself.
But all the man could do was frown; he too was barely making ends meet himself. She was right: the rent had been soaring to heights he couldn’t reach. He only earned enough to keep the small 200-square-foot flat for his small family and pay for his children’s tutorial lessons. His wife had been increasingly worried about what kind of future they could provide for their children. He just hoped the free education would enough for them to make a better life for themselves.
Money in hand, Grandma Chan trotted away. She walked through the streets, her mood better now that she had enough to feed herself for one more day. Once she reached her nearly crumbling building, she walked up to her flat and slept off the day’s hard work, hoping her luck would stay with her for a few more days.
The next day after lunch, the old lady was resting her aching back on a bench in a park. The sun was out again. The scorching rays showed no mercy as they beat down on the bustling city. Grateful for the tree’s shade, Grandma Chan gazed around her, taking in the lush greenery, admiring how the colours were enhanced by the golden sun. She took a moment to reflect on her long life. Being the last child alive was not what she expected; she would have liked at least one of her sisters by her side. They could have basked together in the sun and talked of the days they once shared. But they weren’t here; it was Grandma Chan against the world.
After a spending some time longer musing in this way, Grandma Chan decided she needed to move her legs. She walked around the park at a comfortable pace. Just as she was about to turn a corner, something shiny, nestled in the bushes, caught her eye. The way it reflected the sun’s rays grabbed the old lady’s attention, and she walked closer to the bushes. It was a fishbowl, big enough to fit around a child’s head.
It reminded her of her childhood, back when she owned two tiny goldfish. She has saved for weeks to buy them with her own pocket money. A wave of nostalgia washed over her, stirring up fresh memories of sitting in front of her fishbowl, watching her little fish swim in circles. Back then, she hadn’t a care in the world.
The old woman peered closer and frowned, wondering why there was a fishbowl in the middle of a park. Although it looked old, with scratches and tiny cuts in the glass, it was still in one piece. As she looked more closely, she saw specks of gold. She bent to pick it up, her frail, wrinkled hands grasping the glass, and suddenly, everything seemed turn upside down.
She staggered as the ground around her began to shake, and she was whisked into the unknown. The air rushed past her at such astonishing speed that she thought she was about to be skinned alive. She tried to move, but found that she couldn’t. She remained rooted to the spot. The world around her faded away into a dark abyss.
He head was pounding; it was a pain worse than anything she had felt in all her 85 years. She slowly opened her eyes and looked around. Although the place was strange, it looked familiar. As the pain subsided, she felt different. Her other aches had vanished, too. The back pain she suffered from for the past decade was gone. She looked down at her hands and saw that they were no longer wrinkled and calloused by age, but instead looked soft and smooth, like those of a newborn baby.
“What is this?” she wondered to herself. “Where am I?” She was leaning against a giant tree, her skinny, childlike legs crossed beneath her.
She stood up, expecting her body to stiffen. Instead, she rose effortlessly. She looked down and saw the fishbowl at her feet, only now there was a piece of paper inside it. She picked up the bowl, took out the note, and slowly unfolded it, utterly bewildered.
“Time is ticking. Return what once was lost” it read. Even more confused, and her head full of unanswered questions, Grandma Chan looked around her and began to walk. The first thing she needed to know was where she was and how she had got here. She saw a street lined with small shops and houses, and a feeling of familiarity washed over her. Then it hit her. This was where she grew up.
The tree in the middle of the street, the barbershop her uncle owned, the bakery her neighbours ran, the two cut-down trees the neighbouring families used as dinner tables, and last of all, her family’s shoe shop, nestled at the head of the street. The place she grew up in, the top floor of the shop where she and her siblings would cramp together after school to do homework, while their father added the last finishing touches to the pair of shoes he was working on. Her eyes began to mist over; this was the image she pictured before closing her eyes after a long tiring day, the thought that brought some peace to her mind and helped her sleep. Finally being able to see it all again made her want to jump for joy and cry in sorrow, as she knew that this was just a dream, and she would wake up and find herself back in the polluted, bustling city where no lone citizen got peace.
She knew she had to return the bowl to the rightful owner but she didn’t know whose it was. In the back of her mind was the person’s fading face, but she wasn’t quick enough to recognise it.
“I’ll figure it out later,” she whispered to herself. For now, Grandma Chan came back to her senses and gazed at her surroundings, holding the bowl tightly in her arms. She watched perplexed as she saw her mother come out of their shop.
“Mother?” Grandma Chan murmured. It had been 60 years since she last saw her mother. As her mother approached, Grandma Chan remained frozen.
“Ah daughter, what are you still doing here! I told you, you need to return the bowl to your Uncle Ming, it’s precious to him.”
Yes, Grandma Chan now recalled, the face had been Uncle Ming’s. But she was more preoccupied with the fact that her mother was standing right in front of her. Her little fingers began to tremble.
“What are you still doing here, now shoo, your uncle must be waiting,” her mother told her.
Grandma Chan remembered now: her uncle had had the bowl specially made for his fish, with real specks of gold in it. Yet looking back at her mother and feeling this might be the last time she would ever see her, made her heart ache. She stepped forward and hugged her tightly.
“Ok mum, I’ll get going,” she whispered, her eyes welling up with tears. Her mother stood there, eyeing her strangely, and then turned back towards the shop, back where she came from.
Then away Grandma Chan went. She knew where her Uncle Ming lived – a tiny fish store a few streets away. A store whose floors always remained wet from the fish tanks, and the colour of the fish, the red, gold, black and white, all contrasting against each other. The memory brought a smile to her lips, as she remembered it was the place she had bought her very own two goldfish.
When Grandma Chan reached the shop, she saw it was the same as it had been some 70 years ago, everything in the same place as she could remember.
She went in and saw her uncle, sitting behind the counter reading a newspaper.
“Ah Chan, Just right on time, I’ve been waiting for you,” he told her as he looked at her through his moon-shaped spectacles.
“Here’s your bowl, just like you asked for it!” Just as Grandma Chan handed him the bowl, she felt the same pull she felt at the beginning of her dream, the feeling of being sucked into the unknown. She stared at her uncle as he stood in one place, stuck in his own time, while Grandma Chan went back to her time. She longed to stay there with him, even for one more day. She wanted to see her family, her sisters and father and her mother, one last time. But instead, she felt everything go black again.
Grandma Chan opened her eyes, going through everything she had felt before, but this time, she didn’t feel so light and young. Her age had caught up with her, along with the back pain, the wrinkled hands and the hunched back. She was back in the park in the 21st century, leaning against a tree. She looked up at the sun and felt the wind blowing. What should she do now? She had done what the note had told her to do, and returned the lost bowl to its owner. She looked around and saw the bowl was no longer there. All she could do now was smile wistfully at the memory of seeing her mother again, one last time.