AND THE LIVIN’ IS EASY
There could be no doubt that it was summer. The sky, hanging just above the gently swaying trees, was a violent plum red, trembling and consumptive in an apocalyptic sort of way. My apartment was not far from the bus stop but every step seemed to take an eternity. It was the same every night. I would take a left turn around the arch, and the third house on the left would be dark. It was always dark, even though I heard that a Taekwondo instructor lived there. Cecily occasionally saw his cat slipping into the back alley, but that’s all we’d hear from the residence.
And there came the singing. Just down the street, the admirable soprano practiced religiously everyday. Scales, arias, other god-knows-whats. I’ve never truly thought about my preference for operas, as the prima donna’s singing had long become a landmark in the dark street rather than an artistic display. Sometimes when I passed by her house to buy some ready meals for dinner, I liked to stop just outside her door and look up to the moon as she sang, continuously, mournfully. I rarely saw the moon. The clouds usually obscured all but a little corner of dull silver. But even so, I appreciated this little bit of urban romance I could get.
It was a day where summer arrived and decided to stay, bringing the evening sunlight, the smell of fresh-cut grass and hay fever with it. I’d been sneezing as much as Gary had been faking because he wanted the rest of the week off. I tried some medicines I bought last year for this but they didn’t work, so I called my auntie for help, who also suffered the same misfortune as I. She told me to eat honey.
‘Eat honey? I thought that was just a superstition.’
‘Have you ever seen Winnie the pooh sneezing all over the place?’ retorted my good aunt.
I saw her point. Therefore, after changing into my casual attire, I again plunged into the darkness of the outside, heading for the supermarket.
Gershwin’s ‘Nobody But You’ streamed out of the soprano’s window, cooling down the boiling air and sinking deep into my skin. The soft tinkling of piano notes followed me as I took a turn into the main street.
‘Hey.’ Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see Robin, a kid few years younger than me who lived nearby. We’d been taking the same bus to work (and he to school) everyday for the past eight months, and only last week did we actually speak, Before that, we would clutch to our seats sulkily as the bus slowly emptied at each stop until we were one of the only five left. And then we’d get out together, still not acknowledging each other’s existence, and go our separate ways. Last Tuesday, however, he dropped a pen and I returned it. We chatted briefly everyday ever since. He had short but badly trimmed hair, lazy eyes that wandered and an awkwardly tall frame one commonly found among teenagers.
‘’Evening,’ I said. ‘Where are you headed?’
‘Home.’ He indicated a general direction. ‘I just came out to buy some stuff. What about you?’
‘Oh, to the supermarket. I need to get some honey urgently.’
As if detecting the cue, I sneezed. Robin laughed.
‘Why honey? I thought it was some sort of superstition?’
‘Have you ever seen Winnie the pooh sneezing all over the place?’
‘Are you a fictional bear?’
I deflated. ‘I’ll go to the pharmacy.’
‘Get some honey anyway,’ said Robin helpfully. ‘It’s nice with pancakes. Look, I’ll walk with you. My house is over there, just next to the supermarket.’
We walked past the closed stores as the darkened displays stared out eerily, silently accusing. However, the streetlights and the ongoing traffic lit up our path, and the lively smell of smoke and sweat suggested no possibility of horror.
I told him about my boss’s reaction with my hastily drafted report and he guffawed. Robin had a strange way of laughing; it was always loud and unrestrained and he would audibly breathe out of his nose. I heard that it usually made other people laugh too.
He then went on to tell me about his day. The maths test was unspeakably vicious. Someone actually burst into tears halfway through due to the suffocating pressure, he said. She had to be taken to the nurse afterwards. At lunch, his mate threw the register out of the window and it got stuck in the tree. And there was this girl, he said, who played badminton. Well, he didn’t know if she really played, but he’d seen her carrying a racket around. She was on the same bus as him when his school went on a field trip and they had a half serious argument about global warming (it sounded dull but according to Robin half the arguments in his school were about global warming). He wondered about her.
‘She said my hair was curly,’ he mused. ‘Do you think she likes me?’
‘She called me a moron.’
‘Maybe not, then.’
‘She was smiling when she said it, though.’
‘Perhaps I should ask her out to a film.’ He frowned very seriously. The white neon light shivered as the unstable electricity continued to falter in our town, and we blinked as we reached the supermarket’s front door.
‘There’s my house over there,’ he pointed vaguely with his thumb. ‘I should probably go home now.’
‘Sure. Good luck with the badminton girl.’
I watched him melt into liquid darkness as he walked out of the streetlight’s range, only to dissolve back into a human shape in the vicinity of the next streetlight.
The two plastic bags dug deep into my palms. Exasperated, I decided to take a shortcut home. This part of the town had a curious structure; blocks of buildings would share an underground level space in which each household had a secure basement. I could exit the supermarket through the basement level, walk till the end of the level and go up through the exit, where my house would just be a few meters away. It was not much shorter than the normal route, but I wouldn’t have to go around the block.
Walking down the spiral stairs, I strolled into the underground space of pale white-blue light, where the eternal lullaby of electric buzzing hummed gently at my ears. The other underground garages all had their iron door rolled down, and all was quiet and colourless. My leather shoes echoed uncomfortably on the gravel, an itchy, squeaky noise. The bags rustled softly in my hands, as if whispering a comfort.
It was quiet at first. I thought it was some customers chatting in the supermarket—after all, who would be talking in their basement around midnight?
A strange gravity ushered me onwards, homewards, but the other part of the same force pinned me to the ground as I heard a low weeping.
I could just make out a very young child’s voice. An iron door moved ever so slightly as something gently pushed against it, and for a moment the weeping was overwhelmed by the oscillating echoes of the door. I stood at the same spot. My mouth went dry and I had to move my tongue around and swallow to feel my own existence, to make sure I was still here.
The kid was still crying, now even more quietly. A few hiccups, and he or she quickly controlled their emotion and silence at once ensued. I was the only one left there, with the bags cutting into my hands and my lips dry and cracking.
I nearly drank the milk on the way home to quench my thirst, only to remember my allergy just in time. Cecily wasn’t impressed by my victory spoils, but didn’t complain.
She only said: ‘Honey for hay fever? Isn’t that just a superstition?’
I sat at the kitchen table with a pill stuck in my throat and a glass of water in my hands. The water touched my lips; it tasted good. I thought of the crying child and the water turned salty. My mouth turned dry once more.
Outside the window, Gershwin’s ‘Somebody Loves Me’ glided smoothly over the summer night with its golden glamour, and I had nothing to say in return.
To say it was on my mind the entire day would be an exaggeration. It lurked there, certainly. I could just feel it dabbing its soft edges around my mind. But I had to finish the report for real and didn’t have time for it.
‘Oh, hey,’ I started. ‘Hello.’
The bus carried five tired people as usual and breathed out deep grey gurgles as it climbed the slope. The brightness inside turned the night into a surreal blackness that pressed its glum face on the windows. Robin’s uniform was in urgent need of some ironing, but I supposed it had always been.
We chatted idly about this or that, my mind drifting. Robin was the only kid I knew, but it couldn’t have been him. He was too old.
‘Robin, I said. ‘Do you have any brothers and sisters?’
Even before he spoke, my heart sank at the sight of the weight in his breaths, the guarded hesitation at his lips. His shoulders shook suddenly as if bracing for an attack. “I have a younger brother. Why?”
I shook my head.
The bus came shakily to a halt, and we got out after thanking the driver, who smiled wanly and drove away, bringing the rest of the worn-out souls into the alien darkness beyond. I stood at the stop and watched it go; I’d never walked past this point. I’d never speculated what was on the other side of this tube of darkness, this impenetrable unfamiliarity that settled right in front of me for three years. It could be another city, a place with so many stories I’d never known, a village, perhaps, or some entirely other realm. Or it could be full of horrors or obscenities; but then so what? Something sang in the bushes. A light cricket song, an ode for the summer. A time for happiness, for adventure. I stepped closer to the darkness. If I kept walking, I would reach somewhere. I had to reach somewhere. The earth was round. Or—was it? Would I just step off the cliff at the end of the world and fall into infinite space? What then?
But it was summer and a time for old-fashioned happiness. A time when you dive into games and laughter and chilled drinks with your friends and family. You are surrounded by people and things you know and you lie in the fierce sun (with a thick layer of sunscreen, of course) and bless yourself for having a sunny summer this year—
‘You alright?’ asked Robin, who, seeing that I was fixed to the ground, walked back to the stop.
‘Yeah,’ said I, retracting my steps and turning around. ‘Just the allergy playing up again.’
I vowed to myself I would not set foot in the basement level again, yet I predictably did. With every step I took I hated myself even more. Half of myself desperately hoped I would not hear it again, and the other half yearned for it with a morbid interest. I hated both halves equally.
Sure enough, it was there. I don’t remember how long I stood there, waiting for it to happen. Maybe an hour, maybe none at all, but there it was. A coarse voice of a middle-aged woman scolded viciously, and a child—the same child that wept just out of my reach—stuttered, choking with tears. Occasionally, there were crisp sounds of slaps and thuds. My ears were burning, numb.
I realised I’d stepped too close to the basement, and was on the verge of knocking on the iron door. Frantic, I staggered back, careful not to make a sound. And yet I stopped myself from doing so, hanging in an awkward position in the air. What could I do? What could I have done? The child was weeping, every small intake of tearful breath jabbed me in the ribs. I couldn’t take it. I could barely take care of myself. The authorities, the procedures—
But it wasn’t fair. I could barely take care of myself. I didn’t know how to operate a washing machine. My job never paid enough. My friends thought I wasn’t funny. I had relationship problems. Rain made me yawn. The sight of blue sky alone could make me happy. My mother died when I was 14. I asked little and received even less.
So why me? There were more competent, wholesome people out there. People who could stand up for their entire country, people who would die for their cause, people who could laugh in the face of the end of the world and still finish too many pints in one go. So, why me?
I escaped into the frivolous summer outside. The violet wind flowed gently across this nonchalant darkness, light and irresponsible. It stood and watched, like me. Perhaps it also waited for something to happen.
Before I could grasp it again, it was all gone. My slow and sleepy jazz, my sure happiness, my mild and harmless indifference at the world, through my fingers they spilled and melted into thin air—
‘Fuck you,’ I said out loud, to a child I had never met. ‘Fuck you!’
The summer that no longer existed smiled at me.
The sun didn’t go down until late in the evening, yet it was colder. Even Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ that leaked out the soprano’s window could not bring back that wave of smell of dried sunshine and freshly watered grass. I had left Cecily in the house while I ventured out into the darkness to cool my head.
Of course, the bastard heat of the season allowed no cooling of any kind, but I was wise enough to bring a few cans of drinks straight out of the fridge. I sat on the stone fence, pressing the heavenly chilling can of beer to my forehead. A foreign bead of liquid slid down the corner of my forehead as I watched the blinking, boiling traffic below through the drops that fell into my eyes. I sat pretending to think, to be a good, conflicted person, to be someone who was in a dilemma, who could have a choice. I sat considering all these things knowing I would walk back to the brightly lit house and banter unimportantly with Cecily at the end of the day. The quiet weeping and the tired, comforting voice would vaporise slowly from my mind until I fade back into a completely despicable, completely modern person.
Below the stone hedge, on the lower level, Robin came out of his house—with a child holding onto him. Robin whispered something in the child’s ear, and they turned left together, hand in hand, and disappeared quietly into the pulsating darkness. I felt sick to my stomach.
I was going to go back. Again and again, to listen to the child weep, to see—but not see—my young friend suffering next to his little brother. To never knock on the door, to never say stop. I threw the can away, now disgusted. I excused myself by saying I would sit there with them and suffer with them. O, how I would suffer! And I would never knock, never interfere, never reach out, never be a hero—
Because I was a despicable man. A completely modern, completely despicable man.
Haven’t updated the blog in ages because I forgot it existed…
So dear Hot Pen let’s keep this small utopia alive.