Back then, I was only a Secondary 4 student, concerned with my academics, focused on impressing others, wrapped up in my shallow world. Living in the cloistered environment of a loving family and nurturing school, I had this impression that we were all living the carefree lives of our choices.
Life seemed beautiful. Hard work was recognized. Love abound. Friendship lasted. Fairy tales came true.
One day, while traveling home after a particularly draining day in school, I saw this Primary 5 kid sitting along the pavement. I recognized him. After all, we had chatted before, even walked with each other to school a number of times. (My secondary school happens to be adjacent to his primary school.)
The kid, scrawny little boy that he was, told me that he was locked out of his house. Seized by compassion – feeling all saintly and Mother Theresa-ly – I invited him to my home for dinner.
We had to travel through a meandering path, one which passed by a dark, brooding canal. The kid clutched to me as his imagination ran wild, his thoughts churning along with the drain water he could hear but not see. Later, during dinner, he revealed his fear of being kidnapped by me along this isolated path. Me? Kidnap him? Do I even look like a kidnapper?! Was mildly amused/ offended.
In my humble home, I served the little boy a plate of rice and made him a glass of instant fruity drink. ‘Help yourself to the dishes of meat and vegetables before you,’ I said, 'all these dishes taste great.' The little boy had a great deal of rice, some small pieces of meat and no vegetables. Such an unbalanced diet! No wonder he’s so skinny! Tried forcing him to have more veggie but to no avail.
After dinner, I attempted to get the little boy to leave for his family. He wouldn’t, claiming that his aunt wasn’t home yet. And so, somewhat reluctantly, I allowed him to stay for a while longer.
In that short span of two hours, he had fought with my younger brothers for the computer – quite incredible, considering that he was merely a stranger in this household – and rejected a nice wallet offered.
And then, it was time for him to go home.
Out of fear that he might lose his way, I decided to accompany him. (The labyrinth within this private estate can be confusing even for the residents, what with its cul-de-sacs, nooks and crannies.)
He was locked out of the dilapidated double storey corner terrace and refused to ring the door bell. ‘My aunt will beat me,’ he whimpered. ‘May I just stay over at your home for one day?’
I did not have to think. ‘No.’ It was a definite answer, ringing with the finality of it all. He did something which changed my response immediately.
Have you ever had anyone clung to you in sheer desperation and need? If not, you really should try it someday.
The boy threw himself at me and hugged me with a fervent anxiety. That hug was, in a way, sheer torture. His agony, his dilemma, his turmoil, they were all palpable. It was incredible, the way his pain penetrated through all the shields that I had. It destroyed all composure, leaving me frail and vulnerable. With difficulty, hoping that I won’t hurt the boy’s feelings, I extricated myself from his grasp.
Why did he hug me so? Then, he showed me.
Beneath his short sleeves were ugly bruises. Some were days old while others, weeks old. Apparently, his mother has died while giving birth to him. He was staying with his aunt who physically abused him and a grandmother who didn’t care about his well-being. (It was true that those who physically abuse would pick spots that were not immediately visible to pinch. The skinny but tanned boy, with a rapidly firing tongue, bore resemblance to a playful monkey. He was the very picture of health, that was until one saw his scars.)
I didn’t know what to do. I was merely a Sec 4 kid. I was neither Nelson Mandela nor Gandhi nor Angelina Jolie. I didn't have the political/ social/ financial wherewithal to effect a change. Hell, I didn't even have a degree! (Naively thought that a degree solves all the problems in the world.)
We went back to my home. Had this inspired thought that my family can adopt this kid. Hey, he could be one of my many brothers! After all, I already have 3 siblings. One more shouldn’t make any difference, right? Besides, one of my aunts was adopted. With a precedent, everything should be easier, isn’t it?
My family flatly rejected. My uncle insisted that he leave for his own home. I was speechless with indignance. Words failed me but thoughts remained rampant. How can they turn out this poor child? Aren’t they devout Buddhists? Aren’t they suppose to help those in need? What about practicing what they preach?
I had been so insistent, enfolded in this bubble-wrap of idealism, innocence and stupidity(?). There were many things that I didn’t understand then. And now that I understand, I no longer wish to understand.
My elder brother asked me to be rational. Couldn’t imagine the venomous thoughts coursing through my mind about my brother and his religion at that moment. It felt darkly satisfying to be in touch with such a primal anger; there was this feeling that I no longer cared for what that might happen. The last thing I wanted was to be rational, to be scientific, to be so coolly logical. If one could explode from self-righteousness, I’d have been a splatter on the pavement.
My brother joined the little boy and I in wandering around the neighbourhood. Caressed by the gentle midnight breezes and the warm light of the amber street lamps, my irritation abated. Felt kind of selfish when I suddenly thought of the mountainous load of homework yet to be done and the class test taking place the next day. A guilt made worse when I weighted them with regards to the abused boy walking beside me.
At the T-junction near his house, we sat and tried to come up a solution to this little boy’s dilemma. His dad didn’t live with them in the huge double-story dilapidated corner terrace. Why not call him?
He was terrified by this suggestion. Revealed that his dad would drive down from where ever he was working to whack him. He flinched when my brother placed his hand on his shoulder to comfort him. Was it from the painful contact of hand and raw bruises or was he just not used to being cared about?
Saw a terrace in front of me, one in which a school mate lived in.
Didn’t really feel anything much about him, simply thought that he has a rather irritating pseudo-American accent. Desperation drove me to press the doorbell. This guy, he suggested to contact some family protection services etc. yada yada. His cool rational wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted an instant solution for this little boy. I wanted him to allow the boy to sleep in his terrace home. His dad declined, citing that they could be charged for kidnap.
With face flaming – why did I even try? – I thanked them for their help and we walked away.
The boy finally revealed that he can climb over the gate and sleep in the veranda. With cautious steps, he stepped on the ledge, grabbed the railings and heaved himself over to the other side. The eroded, iron-wrought gate stood between us as we bid farewell.
For the subsequent weeks, he studiously avoided the boy.
The boy had made him promise to walk with him to school daily but he dared not commit. He would either pass the path slightly earlier or later, always hoping that he wouldn’t meet the boy.
Why? Years later, he asked himself. Perhaps, it was because the boy remind him of the ugliness that abounds. After all, the kid’s the one who opened his eyes to the unfeeling truth. Perhaps, the boy evokes a deluge of consuming emotions. Perhaps perhaps perhaps.
He dare not dwell too much on this issue. The possibility of having definite answers frightens him as much as the questions upset him. Sometimes, while he was just lazing around, he would wonder about this boy – where is he now, how is he, what is he doing?
How, indeed, to reach a consensus with oneself?