The old man

A story about love lost, with a doctor as the main character and shoe as the object. Story set in a playground.

The old man was there every evening. No one paid much notice to him – but if they did, they’d be able to tell that he was always there at the same time on the same spot of the same wooden bench. The way he sat did not change much either – back against the bench with his right leg crossed over his left. He did nothing special, only watch the neighbourhood children play. Sometimes, his lips would curl upwards for a faint smile, but most of the time, he would stare blankly ahead, deep in his own thoughts. He was there so often that gradually he had begun to blend in to the background of the perfect playground picture – many just thought of him a grandparent here to accompany a grandchild at play.

It was Sue who noticed him missing that evening. She would, occasionally, steal glances at him, often wondering if he was there for a reason. Somehow, she knew that he wasn’t accompanying a grandchild. She had thought of walking up to him for a brief chat, but every time she wanted to do so, Ken would be yelling his lungs out for her. Who is he? Where is he? She wondered.

The sun was already setting and as she prepared to go home, Sue knew that he would not see him that day. Her mind was taken off the old man once she stepped into her house. Being a stay-at-home mother and wife was never easy; especially with an active boy like Ken. Attending to his whims took up most of her time. He would insist on going to the playground every evening. Sue didn’t mind, actually. At least she could take a break and get some fresh air.

That evening, as she stirred the chicken broth over the stove, the image of the old man came back to her. She could not understand why, but something about him was intriguing. He looked somewhat familiar, but she could not recall where she had seen him. Just by looking at him made her heart sank. He did remind her of someone she knew long ago, but prefer not to remember.

***

“Oh…. that’s Dr Lai,” Mrs Wong said, as she scrubbed her son’s sweaty forehead with a handkerchief. The poor boy was trying desperately to free himself from his mother’s grip.

“Dr Lai?”

Sue’s regular chat partner nodded. Not seeing the old man for the third day in a row was worrying. She could not resist asking.

“He’s been living here for ages. Was a doctor – now retired. His practice was taken over by Dr Chen. Why did you ask?”

“Erm.. nothing. Just worried. Haven’t seen him for days.”

“Ah, don’t bother. He will reappear. He was quite strange as a doctor, too. Doesn’t talk much, keeps to himself. We don’t really like him, but still go to him. Small neighbourhood, no other choices.”

Sue nodded. She hoped that Mrs Wong could reveal more. “Where does he live?”

The woman frowned. “You are not going to look for him, are you?” Sue shook her head, smiling. Maybe.

“The small house opposite that T-junction where the old temple is. Bad feng-shui, if you ask me, house facing a T-junction.”

Mrs Wong rambled on, but Sue was already lost in her own thoughts. An old man without a past. Interesting; not to mention good material for her writings. She made it a point to approach him the next time he’s here. If he ever turned up again.

***

“Muuummmyyy…!!!” Ken’s voice broke Sue’s concentration. She was in the midst of scribbling hastily on her notebook, ideas flowing.

She looked up abruptly, eyes scanning the playground. They stopped only upon finding Ken, covered with sand. Relieved, she hurried over with a packet of wet tissues. One thing she noticed being a mother was how jumpy one could be hearing her child scream. She was constantly afraid that something bad might happen.

Barely finishing wiping him clean, Ken wriggled himself free and ran towards a group of kids. It was then when Sue caught sight of the old man again. This time, he seemed to be observing them. Their eyes met only for a second – he had been quick in pretending to look away upon seeing her noticing. Curiosity took over Sue. Getting up, she found herself walking over to him.

Sensing her intentions, the old man hastily got up and walked away. Sue knew now that he was avoiding her. Why is he behaving that way?

She stopped in her tracks, feeling like a complete fool. She watched the old man wobble away, wondering if she had scared him. Maybe he might not come again. Ever. Her heart sank. Why, she did not know.

“Muummyyy….” the familiar scream rang through her ears again.

“Yes, darling!” Sue answered as the old man disappear into a turning. Turning, she wondered what Ken wanted now.

“What happened, darling?”

“Look!” Ken said, clumsily trying to lift his left leg up. A pair of brand new sneakers she had not seen before was on his feet.

“Where did you get this?” she asked, shocked. Millions of thought raced through her mind. Is her son a thief?

“That kong-kong gave this to me”

“Which kong-kong?”

“He comes here everyday. He was there just now,” Ken pointed to the bench which the old man had been sitting just seconds ago.

Sue realised that it was the old man. But why?

Kong-kong said it’s for his daughter. But she doesn’t want it. So, he gave it to me because I look like his daughter,” Ken explained, his eyes still fixed on the shoes. He seemed to be very proud of them.

***

“Okay darling, papa promise to buy you a new pair at the end of the month,” her papa had said when Sue complained that her friends were laughing at her old shoes.

She had made a huge fuss, because she knew that her papa loved her a lot and could not say no. It wasn’t that they could not afford it. They were rich. Her papa was a doctor and she could have a new pair every month if she wanted to. But her parents were always strict with her. She had to learn to be frugal.

But this time was different. The taunts in school were getting unbearable. She felt guilty after that, but turned adamant again when the girl she hated most in school, Mary, had on the newest and trendiest pair of sneakers few days later. By hook or by crook, she had to get new ones. She didn’t care if her parents disapproved.

Sue waited and waited. The end of the month took a long time to come and when it finally did, something that she had tried so hard to forget happened. Her papa – her loving papa – left them for another woman. She never got her shoes, and to see her papa again.

Her mama, no doubt, was extremely heart broken. She had not dared to ask her for a new pair of sneakers anymore and had to live with the jeers her cruel friends showered on her. And from that day onwards, she swore to herself that she would never forgive her papa. No matter what.

***

It had been years since the incident and Sue Lai could barely remember how her father had looked; mainly because she had tried hard to forget. She had also tried to convince herself that he had passed away instead of abandoning them but somehow, there will be little things that reminded her of him.

Ever since having a family she called her own, she thought that she could finally put the episode behind her. She thought that she had forgiven her papa by learning to trust men again.

But alas, now as she stared coldly at the pair of sneakers her papa had promised her almost 20 years ago, she did not know how she felt. It was as if emptiness had taken over and her papa had never existed.

The strong bond and love between them were lost the day he left them.

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This entry was posted in Writing.

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