Ying plunges into the air, imagining that she is a kite without a string, spreading her arms and legs like the Chinese character “big” and preparing to bounce from one cotton cloud to another with her flat tummy. It would be fun. Yet, this is not true. The reality is a string. The law of gravity is the string. She studies Physics and she understands the natural force. She does not have a suicidal thought, nor does she feel depressed about anything. Strangely, every time she comes close to the railing in the lift lobby outside her flat, such a thought would dawn on her and lately, she even has dreams at night of leaping over the paint-peeling and rusted railing like those hurdles in the sport events. She wonders if other residents of the same floor would think the same. But for her, the dreams are so real that the images are very vivid; that she wakes her mum because of her teeth grinding; and that she finds herself clenching her fists tightly.
The weather is congenial with the sun blazing. Now she leans onto the railing, stretches her back forward, lifts her head towards the brightest part of the translucent blue sky. She closes her gazelle eyes and raises her crescent blows, both of which are obviously inherited from her mother. A welcoming act for a gust of fresh and cool air allying with the warm and soothing light to reinvigorate her mind and body. She still immerses herself in her imagination. This time, her face and limbs are gently sprinkled with the golden powder of the sun like confetti, instantly becoming speckles on her skin, glowing in the lift lobby. She lets strands of her hair vigorously dance across her face without tightening her hair pins and tucking them back behind her ears, which she often does for not intruding her studies.
She lives with her family on the highest floor, the 20th floor. Of course, compared with the building just right opposite across the road, the 20th floor is just the mid-level. But this is not the major difference. The biggest difference is the building in front is in a private housing project whereas hers, a public one. Hierarchy is what it means. Then everything is all different. The residents are different. Even though there is only one road between them, that road seems to be too wide for people on her side to cross. When she thinks of this, she starts to feel sulky.
From the railing, she gazes down, searching for a familiar shadow. The trees, the vehicles and the passers-by shrink into a small size as if she was watching an animated street Lego model in some kind of exhibition. On the 20th floor, she can still clearly hear the vehicles down there hooting and speeding along the driveway so loud that drown the birds and insects chirping and cooing in the background. It is absolutely not a perfectly silent environment for studying. What would it be like if she was standing in one of those balconies on the highest floor of the building in front? She guesses around the 40th floor. The scene down would be like an ant colony with people turning into colourful dots streaming to all directions. She has good eyesight and definitely she can still identify her mother’s shadow. She cannot find her among the passers-by now. She checks her watch. Still five more minutes before 3 pm. Definitely, her mother will not be earlier today like those other days.
She is hungry but she can wait. She is used to the late lunch with her mum. Just five minutes. Five minutes of anticipation and relaxation. A short break from her studies. Half a month later, she will be braced for the public examinations. A make-or-break situation which determines if she can have a step closer to touch the resident card of the building in front. She is nervous but she will not let her nerves crush her because she knows what she wants. She hears a door slammed, a gate latched and a key turned. Every step takes a while before the next one. The gate is closed and opened a few times. The key turns and turns. She knows who is coming.
“Little Ying, waiting for your mum again?” Granny Li stumbles slowly with her cane towards the lift. She is almost 80 years old and loves to go out for a stroll in the park nearby and chat with other grannies in the late afternoon.
“Yes, granny, can you go down to the park yourself? Do you need my help?” Ying turns her head to Granny Li and asks.
“What a lovely girl! I wish my kids were like you. They used to wait for me there when they were small,” she smiles to her but then her smile freezes and her eyes dim with an inexplicable sadness. It just happens in a split second. She quickly recuperates her normal self and looks directly into Ying’s eyes and broadens the smile to conceal her loss in the second. Ying knows what she would say. She says the same line every day, “You look exactly the same as your mum. The younger version.”
“Yes, I know,” she replies and then clamps her mouth tight and forces a faint smile. She thanks God that the lift arrives. She darts to press the “open” button, not for fear of missing the lift but for fear of continuing the conversation. She helps Granny Li discreetly move her steps into the lift. Li nods and thanks her.
Ying returns to the railing, scanning down to the small park across the road where just one big fig tree and a small patch of grass are planted. Right in front of the tree some grannies are sitting there on some benches in its shade chatting and listening to the radio, probably some Chinese operas. After a while, Ying can see Granny Li’s shadow joining them. Ying knows most of these grannies who live alone in their flats without their kids and partners. Their kids have grown up, moving out to have their own families in some of the most popular types of housing in the city, subdivided flats with four or five people crowding themselves in a hundred square place, far worse than the public flats. The TV and newspapers often report about them as one of the eyesores of this cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong. In fact, Ying and her mum and other residents of those public housing projects are considered to be lucky today. A low-income family has to wait for at least three years to be assigned a public flat. “Being allocated to a public flat is far better than winning Mark Six”. People often say. It may be lucky or unlucky that Ying and her mum have waited for three years exactly to move into a public flat because of the special reason, a single-parent family. Before, they also lived in a partition flat like Granny Li’s children. She once heard her mum talk to Granny Li about her kids in the corridor.
“Granny, have your kids come to visit you?” Her mum casually asked.
“Not recently. They’ve been very busy about their life. The rent is high and the living cost is so expensive that most of them have taken more than one job to support their families with small kids. You know, not just one mouth to feed and I’m too old to look after their kids. My eyesight is deteriorating,” Granny heaved a sigh.
“You take care of yourself. Come and have dinner with us any time if you want,” her mum comforted her.
“Thanks. I’ll look after myself. Don’t worry. I’ve got used to solitude since my old partner left several years ago. It’s okay. My right eye is fine though my left one can only see shadows. Old people are like that. Things go downhill. I’m not the worst. Plus, who would like to see things so clearly all the time? Sometimes you wish they were all shadows. Anyway, I may be too long-winded. Don’t want to waste your time. You take good care of Little Ying. She’s gonna have the public exams, right? She must be under great pressure. The news says the exams will start next month.”
“Yes. She is very serious about the exams. I hope she will make it. You need a good degree to have a decent job.”
“Right. She is the only kid left here. The smallest but the smartest one on this floor. I’m sure she will be the first one of us to obtain a place in university. She has your character, being tough and persistent. She looks exactly the same as you.”
“I just pray that she won’t be like my ex-husband, giving up so easily.”
“Don’t worry. She is not a fish in a pond. She will swim to the ocean.”
“She looks exactly the same as you.” Ying whispers the words to herself with mixed feelings, somehow some familiar sort of fear, resistance and bewilderment seeping into her heart. When her mum was young, she worked as a bread maker in a bakery, a waitress in a restaurant and a saleslady in a boutique. Now she is a part-time janitor in a primary school nearby. She doesn’t want to be a waitress, a bread maker or a saleslady, nor does she want to be a janitor. Granny Li was a cashier in a supermarket. Her daughter is now a cashier in a Chinese teahouse while her son, a delivery man to different stores. Most of the other kids living on the same floor are no longer kids anymore. They have all gone out to work for at least five or six years: Mr. Wong’s son, a construction worker like his father, Mrs. Lee’s daughter, a cook like her mother and more and more who either do the same jobs like their parents or work in the same field. Ying loves her mum and highly appreciates her character. But she is afraid of herself growing into her mum. She strongly resents it and thus sometimes she feels uneasy when hearing those words which are like a spell or even a curse, particularly at times they remind her of the exactly same words she heard among the neighbors chatting about their children when she was in primary school. These words are timeless but powerful.
A familiar shadow emerging from the street corner and striding swiftly along the road to her building interrupts her thought. The shadow greets the grannies under the tree. Yes, it’s her mum. Ying can see her mum carrying two bags which are definitely their lunch. She wonders what tea sets her mum has bought. It is the tea time when discounted meal sets replace the more expensive lunch sets in a chain restaurant nearby. Her mum usually picks those sets with sandwiches, rice or noodles as they are more economical and filling. Today, she would like to have Ovaltine and rice with barbecue pork. She does not call her mum to order her lunch. She usually takes whatever her mum buys. It’s just today. She suddenly has a strong desire for some meat and grease. Perhaps she is a bit exhausted. She has already pored over five chapters of Physics and has done enough thinking. She wants to swallow some fat to fill the remaining room of her brain. Yet, she still did not call her mum before to order the food. It’s okay. It doesn’t matter. She does not want to trouble her mum to do this or that for her.
She traces her mum’s shadow into their building. She is excited, turning her head to the lift and gazing the number indicated in the small screen on the top of the lift door. The arrow keeps going upward with the number blinking and jumping from one floor to another, showing the lift ascending against the law of gravity. Up and up. 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th… She is expecting. Her heart throbs with the rhythm and so does her tummy. The lift door opens. Her mum comes out, beaming, waving her bags and blurting out, “Ovaltine and rice with barbecue pork” before Ying says anything.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Flo Au won the Most Creative Award in HK’s Top Story 2015. Her pieces are published in online literary journals like Aaduna, Pif Magazine, EJ Insight, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Star82 Review and ChristArt.