Four months has passed since the Extradition Bill Controversy began. Life is never the same again for us locals in Hong Kong. I believe it is time for a little more talk, a little more understanding, and a lot more healing. For this purpose, I decided to write, on the fly, this little tale. It’s a 20-minute read (5,785 words), which you may take in as a story, or as a summary of observation and reflection. Either way, I hope you would enjoy reading it. Last but not least, I’d like to express my special thanks to my wife for the initial writing prompt, and to Ms Gina Gallyot for her continuous encouragement and guidance. Cheers!
Table Leg for Two
By Colin Lee
Paul put on his black cotton mask and dashed into a McDonald’s, one of the few establishments open 24/7 in the vicinity. His chest was heaving heavily in the sodden black T-shirt, from which he could probably wring out a bucket of sweat. The 17-year-old looked around nervously. The eatery was empty except for two homeless elderlies lounging about without a care of the world—the folks called them McRefugees. There was only one server at the counter—a bleary-eyed, chubby teenager in a sloppy trainee uniform. The rest of the staff, if any, must be lazing at the back of the kitchen. After all, who would come out for a burger at 1:30 am when the police were tear-gassing the streets?
Paul barely felt the bruises on his back. A bigger part of him was grieving for the loss of his helmet during tonight’s scuffle. The sturdy construction headgear had costed the highschooler one heck of a fortune from his meagre allowance. And it wasn’t just the money; having worn it week after week, Paul had grown very fond of the yellow helmet. He had even kept a tally, nicked on its inside, for the nights spent on the frontline. Thankfully, he managed, on the run, to pack up the rest of his gear—elbow and knee pads, gloves, goggles and respirator. Along with his supplies of saline, water, pliers, cling film, bandages, masks, towels, clothes, phone chargers and whatnots, the backpack bulked up beyond conspicuously; he could hardly wait to put the ridiculous poundage away.
A “Maintenance In Progress” sign was posted outside the restrooms, presumably locked as well, to deter drunkards, vagrants and—new to the list—stranded protesters from soiling the facility. Paul cursed under his breath. It would have been nice for a quick wash-up, though he could easily do without one. However, to remain in the all-black protest outfit would simply beg for trouble; he’d better get changed, somehow.
The bleary gaze of the server met his with just a hint of alarm, not appearing particularly surprised. With a phone in hand, anyone still staying up in Hong Kong tonight shouldn’t be unaware of the situations—apart from the misinformed bunch, of course.
“Welcome to McDonald’s,” said the server boy mechanically. His hand, however, was discreetly motioning Paul to an unlit area that was closed off with a cleaning sign.
Paul returned a nod with equal subtlety and gratefully obliged. Having assured himself the vagrants were not looking, he scurried into the hideout and went for the innermost corner. He was quite pleased with the place. When a brigade of cops was ferociously mopping up the streets, and packs of thugs might also be lying in wait to chip in with extra violence, there’s nothing more comforting than a dim and secluded indoor space—which was, by the way, modestly air-conditioned too. He thought to himself, at worst, he could just spend the night there like the McRefugees.
Paul hid his backpack under a bench and sat down with a sigh of relief. Don’t loosen up, he told himself. Not yet, you monkey.
He hunched his lanky frame a little, keeping his head low, and listened. The streets were far from quiet—the distant screams of retreaters, the vehement shouts of officers and their needless brandishing of weapons, the petrifying shots of tear gas canisters and the desperate calls for medics and reporters. Paul could hear the familiar clamour approaching by the second. For fear of getting noticed, he slowly slipped under a table.
Someone was screaming just outside the door—a girl. “Stop!” she wailed, pleadingly. “Stop beating me already!”
Though Paul had his share of misfortune tonight—one whack on the head that sent his helmet flying away and a few more on his back—he spared himself no allowance for weakness, not even as little as an audible groan. Little did he know, however, that the cry of this girl would become his torturous last straw.
Paul came apart at the seams.
Tears burst out and flowed down to the face mask. He couldn’t help but blame himself for being a useless coward while his comrades were being abused and unduly arrested. He wept noiselessly and dared not move a muscle, for some cops were entering the eatery.
The night-shift deputy emerged from the back of the McDonald’s kitchen and exchanged a few words with them. “Nothing unusual,” he assured the cops.
In the meantime, as one officer was checking up on the vagrants, to Paul’s horror, another flicked a flashlight towards the closed-off area. Luckily, the search was hasty enough to miss his corner. Still, for Paul, those two seconds had lasted an eternity.
Soon, the police stormed out of the McDonald’s. Someone in the neighbourhood hollered and called the cops “thugs” and “bastards”. A few policemen shouted back, and a few others demanded the reporters to back off. From the noises, Paul could more or less make out the persistent chaos outside. He wondered what had befallen the girl. He imagined, by now, she would have her hands strapped behind her back, watching helplessly as the cops rummaged her belongings.
Then, he heard her voice.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” the girl screamed, to which the cops chuckled and responded with a few vulgar remarks.
Paul was all steamed up. Out of frustration, he punched the table leg and buried his head between his knees, where his tears resurged afresh. He wished he could scream. He wished he could save the girl. He wished he could avenge her suffering. But, no, instead he could only hide under a table like a scared rabbit, whimpering cowardly as the cops carried out their villany in the name of the law.
Paul punched the table leg again and wept even harder.
“Hey!” someone whispered—a female voice, crisp like the autumn wind. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
Paul, though startled by the intrusion, was promptly reassured by a gentle tap on the shoulder. He realised the stranger must have been there before him, taking cover under a neighbouring table.
“It’s OK,” she said, most soothingly. “Let it out. I’m with you.”
Nudged by the warmth of her voice, Paul felt an incredible release and continued crying. He thought of the girl outside and all his friends who were arrested in the past few months. He thought of the countless innocent who were injured, shot, harassed, maimed, assaulted, stabbed and abused in the hands of the cops, the misguided chauvinists and the state-sponsored thugs. He thought of the oppressed and desperate who had taken their own lives during this movement. He thought of the corrupted establishment which treated the populace as her enemies, rejected dialogues and brutally suppressed the vox populi. He thought of his parents and those brainwashed by propaganda, who refused to listen to their cause for true justice. He thought of the gloomy prospect of Hong Kong, whose autonomy was destined to perish by 2047.
Paul had never cried so much in his life. Before long, the cotton mask was drenched by his tears, so he took it off. His companion had moved next to him, shedding silent tears of her own, and occasionally doled out a fresh sheet of tissue or two.
Eventually, as his fits of sorrow and despair slowly subsided, Paul turned towards the slender silhouette. A dash of ambient light leaked through the partition and fell upon her; he caught himself unwittingly intrigued. Although her hair was tucked into a black field cap, and her face was covered by a black mask up to her nose, somehow, Paul’s intuition convinced him that his new friend must have the face of an angel. Perhaps it was the graceful angle of her chin; perhaps it was the allure of her willowy eyebrows and their crescentic arcs; but he was certain, most certain, that he was utterly mesmerised by her eyes. Presently a little watery, her brown almond eyes sparkled with a sheen of hazel and tailed off like those of a Chinese phoenix. Her gaze were melancholic, but not miserable; expressive, but not in the least disquieting. Paul felt his heartbeat picking up and hoped that she wouldn’t notice his blushing in the dark.
“Thank you,” he said awkwardly, willing himself to steady his voice.
“Too much tear gas, huh?” she replied with a chuckle, which was slightly muffled by her mask.
He held out his hand. “Paul,” he cleared his throat, “the name is Paul.”
“Hello Paul!” she shook his hand. “How old-fashioned. Did you pick that name for your English lessons or was it given by your parents?”
After savouring the dainty grip in his hand and the genial melody in his ear, he answered, “My Mom. She is a fan of … er … Paul McCarthy.”
“McCartney,” the girl corrected him. “McCartney from the Beatles, innit?”
“Yes, the Beatles guy.”
“Too trusting, Paul, you are,” She glimpsed at him with a cheeky smirk in her eyes. “How do you know if I’m not a cop in disguise?”
She’s right, Paul reflected.
It had become a common police tactic to send “ghosts”—cops who dress up as protesters—to eavesdrop on the black-shirt and incite unnecessary violence on the frontline, including throwing Molotovs at public facilities—whereafter having the protesters framed, of course. By turning on unsuspecting pickets time and time again, the ghosts had instilled a new paranoiac fear amongst the black-shirt.
The girl stared amusedly at him, before coming to his rescue with a laugh. “Stacey,” she said, suddenly.
“The name is Stacey … though I can’t promise you it’s real.”
Paul felt a strange delight in learning her name. “Did you pick that for your English lessons?”
“Nah, I used to be a ‘Molly’ back then.”
Used to be … back then, Paul noted, dismayed by the implied age gap between them.
“Do your parents know you’re here?” Stacey asked.
Seeing the young woman—not girl—in a new light, the lad’s tickled ego found her well-disposed question oddly patronising.
In a fit of pique, Paul blurted out, “I don’t really care.”
Stacey regarded him inquiringly for a moment, perhaps to discern the cause for his simmering reaction. “I guess I understand,” she said thoughtfully. “You know, my parents are stubbornly pro-establishment too.”
Feeling sheepish for his impulsivity, Paul took a deep breath to cool off. “Cockroaches—they call us,” he muttered, playing his part.
“Well, even in the case of an infestation, one ought to first consider the cause—you know, bad sanitation, waste spills and whatnot—rather than abusing the killer spray as though it’s air freshener.”
“Why are we the generation to be blamed?” Paul recalled the infamous remark by Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive, and grunted, “No stake in the city, my foot!”
“Innit!” exclaimed Stacey. “Who have caved in to the vested interests and launched the housing prices to ridiculous heights? Who have been sitting on their hands while our Gini Index continues to dwarf those from some of the world’s vilest dictatorships? One in five Hongkongers live below the poverty line! Just look at them McRefugees—you find them in every 24-hour McDonald’s every night!”
“And the white elephants!” chimed in Paul.
“And the white elephants!” echoed Stacey. “They’d rather squander billions of taxpayers’ dollars on unnecessary bridges, train tracks and tunnels for Chinese tourists and parallel traders rather than on deprived resources like public housing and medical for the local poor.”
“80,000 dollars for a bike stand on Lamma Island, 330,000 for a rain shelter that cannot block the rain, 50 million for a musical fountain in Kwun Tong, 1.7 billion for a footbridge in Yuen Long—look at them ruling elites!” Paul threw his hands up, striving to keep his voice down. “What do they monkeys know about living? Carrie Lam couldn’t even ride the subway or buy herself a toilet roll!”
“Not to mention they’re all well-paid for their jobs.”
“After reaping all the perks from the good old colony, they just take everything for granted and blame us youngsters for all their troubles! As for their own children—”
“All safely stashed away together with their foreign assets, innit?” Stacey finished his sentence seamlessly.
Paul slapped his thigh with an adrenalised stroke. “Find me one chief secretary whose family are not foreign passport holders, and I’ll find you a minister who has a stake in the city!”
“Well, I can’t!”
“No stake, my foot!”
They exchanged a hearty laugh for the consonant pleasure they shared.
“So glad we’ve met!” commented Stacey.
I’m more than glad, thought Paul. This is bliss.
He nodded and smiled placidly; deep down, however, his desire to see her face unmasked was growingly riotous. Paul leaned back and exhaled. Then, he muttered, “How will this end?”
“I don’t know.” Stacey shook her head sighingly. “I can’t see how it works. All this extradition law amendment and … you know, Hong Kong and China coming together. Between now and 2047, it won’t look pretty, innit?”
“No, it won’t. With two utterly different systems, there can’t be mutual consent—” Paul sheepishly peeked at Stacey as he turned the word over in his mind, “for such a union.”
“Rape,” Stacey remarked, matter-of-factly, “that’s what it is.”
Though as unsuggestive as she put it, Paul’s usual bravado for F-bombs and dirty jokes was vanquished there and then. The cherry boy coughed uncomfortably and went on with a pink face. “After all these years,” he coughed again, “I can’t believe so many still believe in the commies. They shouldn’t have needed kids like us to tell them the obvious truth as in The Emperor’s New Clothes. I mean … why did our grands and great-grands migrate here from the mainland in the first place?”
“Well, the pro-establishment would argue that things have changed—you know, reform and whatnot.”
“Changed, my foot!” Paul was exasperated. “They are still commies to the bone. Socialists or whatever they call themselves … all cocky pretence to dismiss the individuals in the name of the greater good.”
“Which is all up to the Big Brother, innit?”
“The Emperor’s New Clothes!”
“That’s why we must maintain the status quo,” concluded Stacey. “You know, the civil rights and liberties, the separation of power, fair trials … the footing for our stability and prosperity … for as long as we can.”
Paul brooded over the state of affairs. “Now that the lapdogs continue to sell us out,” he said, “I kinda wish my parents would live long enough to see 2047 for themselves. On second thought … however, I believe I’d regret this wish by then.”
“You know,” Stacey looked squarely at his face and commended him, “you have a very good heart, Paul. I wish your parents would see you the way I do, some day.”
That’s one heck of a compliment, thought an elated Paul.
Albeit trying hard not to appear smug, Paul couldn’t resist the tingle to grin from ear to ear like a salivating hyena, so, as he courteously murmured back, “Thank you,” he quickly looked away to spare Stacey the mortifying sight.
Intermittent commotions and distant sirens on the streets continued to remind Paul of the menace looming large. He wanted to ask Stacey about her plans, but when he turned round and caught her reworking her hair, his breath was taken away from him. Paul, who had never watched a girl upclose doing a girl thing, was thoroughly fascinated as Stacey removed the cap to let her black wavy tresses tumble around her shoulders. Despite the dimness, he noted streaks of chestnut highlights in her hair—another telltale confirmation, to Paul’s chagrin, that she was no schoolchild like him. Then, Stacey lifted the bottom of her mask—an instant which Paul found his pulse dangerously doubled—and clenched the hair clip between her immaculate teeth, freeing her hands to rebundle the wavy tresses.
“How do you normally spend your Saturday night?” she mumbled behind her pearly teeth.
“I don’t know,” Paul murmured, dazed by the alluring display of feminity. “Playing video games. Some shoot ’em up, mostly.” Immediately, he regretted not having impressed the lady with a more sophisticated hobby.
“Such karma!” Stacey giggled, dropping the hair clip into her hand. “Now you’re being bloodied and battered for a change, innit?”
Paul, who was mesmerised by her smile, remained as quiet as a mouse.
Stacey, however, misread his silence and became abashed. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, apologetically, “That wasn’t funny to begin with. It must be terrible on the frontline. I’ve never been near one, actually.”
Paul watched disappointedly as Stacey tucked her hair back in the cap and pulled the mask over her lovely lips and chin again. “No, no, sorry,” somehow, he found his voice again. “I was only … er … busy thinking. So … you’re every inch a PRNN. Is that what you’re saying?”
Among the two camps of protesters, the primary bloc was called the PRNN, which stood for Peace, Rational, Non-violence and Non-profanity. Predominantly championed by the Pan-democrats and their allies, the PRNNs relied on mass rallies and moderate acts of civil disobedience to voice their opposition. On the other end of the spectrum, the radicals who adopted riotous measures to parry police crackdown were identified as the Valiants. The PRNNs mainly operated during the day, and the full-geared Valiants the night.
Stacey nodded, “Well, I guess I am.”
“Why would a PRNN like you come out tonight?” asked Paul.
“I just wanna help. You know, passing out train tickets, face masks, that sort. I was in the subway station and didn’t expect to come up to the street level at all. But then the MTR shut down the trains and the cops smoked us out with tear gas.”
“Oh, I heard!” Paul slapped his thigh. “They fired them inside the station. Wha … what were they thinking, really?”
“Yeah, crazy, innit?” Stacey’s voice shook with anger. “The smoke wasn’t going anywhere. They cops just turned the whole place into a gas chamber. It’s madness! There were children, elderlies, pregnant women, domestic helpers—you know, just people going home after dinner!”
Stacey blinked away the glitter in her brown almond eyes, and carried on with a sniffle, “The cops beat up everyone they came across and arrested a few young people at random. Several Valiants held them back for a bit so the rest of us managed to get out. Once out on the street, we got some water and washed each other’s eyes. Then, more cops came and broke us up. I ran and found this McDonald’s. And here I am.”
“Must have scared the shi … er … scared you to death!”
“I was terrified. Can’t imagine how you guys do it week after week.”
“We just have to do it.”
“Well, at least, now I’ve seen it for myself—you know, police brutality and whatnot—”
“For a change?”
“For a change. Yes.”
Here it comes, you monkey! Paul braced himself for the golden opportunity to ask the real important questions.
“Change from what? I mean … what’s your usual Saturday like?” As cool as a cucumber, he steered the conversation back to the earlier topic.
“Well, I usually—”
“Go out with your … your … friends?”
That was bloody obvious! Paul screamed in his head. Might as well have gone straight for “boyfriend”.
He caught a fleeting glimpse of her raised eyebrow and was all hot under the collar.
“Oh, kinda, yes,” Stacey replied soberly, nevertheless. “Cell group—you know, church friends.”
“How nice! Christian, huh?” Bent on ascertaining her status, Paul responded with feigned interest. “What do you guys do?”
“Bible studies, coffee, dinner, birthday parties, that sort. I could have invited you to join us … but lately things haven’t been going well there.”
“Political difference, huh?”
“What else could it be?” she groaned. “After my … my cell leader got into a fist fight with a newcomer last month, the pastor dismissed him and has banned all forms of political discussion ever since.”
“What a shame! The talk of politics isn’t the root of the conflict. And I thought Jesus was very much aware of the social problems of his times.”
“Innit, right? Among the twelve apostles handpicked by Jesus, you’ve got Matthew the publican, who served in the government, and Simon the Zealot, who’s basically a rebel. You see, Christians should know better about accepting differences with love and understanding.”
“Didn’t Gandhi say, ‘I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians’?” It was too late—Paul put his foot in his mouth. “Er … sorry. Of course I don’t mean you, Stacey.”
“Well, it’s a good reminder, Paul. We’re all equally sinners before God—at least, that’s what the Christian faith is about. If a congregation ever think they are better than anyone, at best they would only make do with a sense of superficial unity, where there’d be either no diversity or no permission to display it.”
“An exclusive club for think-alikes.”
“Or, rather, for those masquerading as think-alikes.”
“Aha, that makes sense!” Paul nodded. “How long have you been attending this church?”
“Let me see … Goodness me! It’s been years.”
Stacey lifted her crescentic eyebrow again. “C’mon, Paul,” she sniggered, “you’re trying to find out my age, innit?”
Paul, floored by her candour, nervously gaped at Stacey.
“Nosy little brat!” she cracked up suddenly—her voice without a hint of reproof. “I’m 24 … hmm … 25 actually. Don’t tell anyone!”
I’d be over the moon, Paul reflected, if I knew you enough to tell anyone anything about you. On the other hand, his heart sank a little in finding out their age gap; but, he reminded himself that the French first lady was 24 years the president’s senior. There’s still hope.
“No way, Stacey! You look so young. I thought you were 16 or 17.”
Flattery never gets old. Paul could almost see Stacey’s pearly smile beaming behind the mask.
“Nah, I’m an old woman, you know, old enough to be your aunt.”
“So, Auntie Stacey,” Paul teased her, “are you still in school or what?”
“I wish!” she sighed. “Graduated from uni three years ago … virtually jobless for almost a year—”
“Wait, what did you study?”
Paul bit his tongue, but a “no wonder” had already slipped out through his face.
“I know!” Stacey glanced at him, unoffended. “Everyone told me it’s useless.”
“I’m sure it isn’t,” he replied politely. “You landed a job alright, I suppose?”
“Just interning … you know, insurance.”
“Well … that doesn’t sound bad at all. Quite an admirable industry, to be honest.”
“It isn’t for me at all. I’m interested in the studies of humanities, not sureties for humans!” She shook her head and added, “Finance, banking, insurance, tourism, retails and services—pretty much sums it up for Hong Kong, innit?”
“All the more we need to restore the ecology of local businesses! How can we survive when the streets are lined by shops selling little else but milk powder and toiletries for mainland tourists and parallel traders?”
“And don’t forget our malls—monopolised by the handful of conglomerates and retail chains.”
“All at the mercy of Chinese money,” Paul said drearily. “What choices do we have?”
“So, what about you? What would you do after school?”
“I don’t know,” Paul scratched his head. “Anything but police work, I guess.” On a whim of reflex, he grumbled, “Cursed be the cops and their families!”
“Oh, Paul!” Stacey patted on his shoulder. “There are bad apples—”
“Barrelfuls, Stacey, barrelfuls of bad apples!” Paul couldn’t help but flare up, interrupting her with a whisper-shout.
“Not all of them are beyond saving—”
“Good cops, if there were any, should have either quit or brought the bad cops to justice already.”
Stacey kept her hand on his back, but the physical touch Paul was so desirous of had completely escaped him in the middle of his tantrum. “I understand,” she said. “But listen to me … please.”
Paul was disappointed. He knew where this might be heading, for Stacey sounded just like some well-intentioned relative who thought the world of the police. Nevertheless, when he caught sight of those heavenly brown eyes pleading for his attention, he was more than bewitched to oblige.
“The real battle,” she continued, “is not fought between the people and the police. No matter how rotten the barrelfuls have become, the cops are no more than the puppets they are meant for—you know, diversions deployed by the top brass who wash their hands of the dirty work. Without the uniform, a cop is just as much a Hongkonger as you and me—”
“Not when his soul’s been sold to the devil!”
“Well, some of the cops might have ulterior motives. Some might be misguided—brainwashed even. A lot of them might be cracking under the pressure and strain. Like us, they are humans too, you know, and they will never be perfect. Even if the entire police force is disbanded and replaced, whoever takes up their mantles will still be prone to the same influences and snares—”
“That’s why,” Paul interjected, “there must be an independent investigation to rein in the bad apples!”
“Now we’re talking,” Stacey nodded. “We can hate the cops for all we want, but that won’t solve any problem for good. The point is that no one should be allowed to go above the law. We must not let the abuses get away to jeopardise the standard of law enforcement. On the other hand, an independent investigation would do the good cops justice too. Do you see my point, Paul?”
“Whether justice will be delivered one way or another, we’ve gotta learn to live with our traumas and scars, which will never go away, regardless of how much retribution the rule of law may exact for the atrocities. At any rate, by engrossing ourselves in hatred and unforgiveness, we will hardly inspire change from those we disagree with, nor repentance from those who’ve wronged us, whereas our society as a whole will only find it harder to move on and heal, even when reconciliation comes knocking on our door one day.”
“So, like you Christians say, ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.’ Is that what you mean?”
“Well, sorta, though that saying is again from Mr Gandhi, not the Bible.”
Paul couldn’t entirely disagree with her. But to offer unconditional forgiveness to those evil savages, he pondered, that’d be outright unthinkable.
“God help us!” he said wryly.
All the same, Stacey took his word literally and responded, “Amen!”
Paul checked his phone. It’s 2:27. The latest confirmed that the cops had left their vicinity.
“Is it safe out there?” asked Stacey. “My battery’s run out.”
“Here!” Paul dug out his charger and lent it to her. “Let’s wait a little longer, just in case.”
He hoped the charger would buy him time—time for unmasking her face and her relationship status.
However, as it turned out, time was not on his side.
“I’m so tired!” Stacey yawned, out of the blue, and climbed up the bench.
No matter how much he wanted to carry on, Paul had to behave gentlemanly. “Have a rest,” he told her. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Good night!” Stacey uttered coyly in a baby’s voice and curled up like one. “You’re a good man.”
Words couldn’t describe the elation he felt. Paul tried to decide if she was being flirty or polite, but as she began to doze off, he quickly whispered, “Stacey?”
Stacey peeked at his nervous face with a half-opened eye. After a draft of dead air drifted past, she closed her eye again and mumbled, “What’s up, Paul?”
Paul mustered all the resolve from every fibre of his being. “Do you … er … have a boyfriend?” he asked her, at last.
Another draft of dead air drifted by. All was quiet except for some heartbreak Cantopop playing in the background—and its miserable presage that echoed in his mind. In spite of her effort to pretend dozing undisturbedly, Paul believed Stacey was carefully considering his query and its implication.
After what seemed like ages to Paul, she yawned again and replied, “It’s complicated.”
Paul chewed the answer over, and over—not necessarily promising, but potentially favourable. He decided, for now, it’s best to leave it at that.
In blissful silence, Paul watched her curvy torso gently rising and falling to the ebbs and flows of her unhurried breath. He then sat down on the bench and entertained himself a lifetime’s worth of dreamy contemplation, in the midst of which he also ventured to spread his navy blue windbreaker over Stacey. There was not one slightest flutter of her wispy eyelashes. She really was asleep.
Paul bent down and adored her face—at least, every bit of which spared by her mask. Being the teenage prankster he was, Paul could have sneakily unmasked her; but he dared not, for he felt he must cherish every bit of divine favour to win her over—as a man. It’s crazy to think he was in love—with a girl he had barely met, whose face he had hardly seen—but it’s true. It’s inevitable.
She’s his destiny.
“God, if you’re real and listening,” he whispered prayerfully, “please let me stand by this woman and protect her for the rest of my life!”
Paul woke up with a start.
“Stacey?” he gasped and looked around him—he had fallen asleep on the bench.
To his fear, there’s not a single soul nearabout. Paul even checked under the tables.
“Stacey?” His trembling voice was muffled—his face was masked. Paul didn’t remember having put it on again. He checked the time—it’s 5:13—and dug up his backpack from under the bench. His fingers flurried through his belongings in a rage. Both the charger and the navy blue windbreaker were there.
He broke out into a cold sweat—was his encounter with Stacey all but a dream?
Paul got up and peered over the partition. The two McRefugees had remained where they were.
No, no, no! His guts told him, there must be something!
Paul tried to clear his mind with a few deep breaths and strode past the cleaning sign. The restrooms from across the eatery continued to declare its never-ending “Maintenance in Progress”.
The chubby server boy saw him and recited, “Hope to see you again soon,” with just as little emotion and conviction as a monk would say so in a Chinese funeral.
Paul was nevertheless too busy to question his sincerity. “Excuse me,” he said, hurrying to the counter, “did you see a girl leaving?”
The server stared back—his eyes a little less bleary, a little wider. “No, I didn’t,” he answered.
Paul was devastated. A burst of tears began to blur his vision as he turned and walked away.
“Hey!” called the server—his robotic voice sprinkled with a teeny dash of colour. “I was helping out at the back for some time. Perhaps you can ask someone else.”
Paul quickly wiped his tears away and thanked him.
“You alright, boy?” one of the McRefugees asked. Dressed in an oversized dark olive nylon vest, the jaunty salt-and-pepper elderly was neat and well-shaven enough to pass for a battle-ready chauvinist in the Victoria Park Forum.
Paul was about to answer when it suddenly dawned on him that the vagrant was having breakfast—not scraps and crumbs from castoff trays, but a full, jumbo combo with a cup of steaming hot tea.
“Nice girl, isn’t she?” The old man smiled with a mouthful of broken teeth. “She bought us both breakfast before leaving,” he said, gesturing the other vagrant who sported a scruffy red baseball cap and an unkempt beard. “It was … what … six, seven minutes ago?”
Paul relished the brief respite from worrying if Stacey was no more than an imaginary friend his post-concussion head had conceived. He reckoned, being the considerate angel she was, Stacey must have put the mask on his face and replaced the stuff she borrowed back in his bag upon her departure. Notwithstanding, why didn’t she say goodbye?
Anxiously, he asked the nylon-vest man, “Where … er … which way did she go … did you see?”
“Be patient, young man!” the uncle sipped his tea and replied leisurely. “Though we pretend to be deaf and dumb, old men like us hear things all the time—you know, things like … how a boy found himself an instant crush but ended up missing the boat.”
Paul nearly cursed at his long-windedness, but he resolved to bear with him a little longer. “I’m all ears, sir.”
“Well, here’s what I’d say,” resumed the uncle, “if a girl wants you to find her, she’ll make sure there’s a time and a place for you to reach her.”
The red-cap uncle chortled at the remark. “Oh, women!” he chimed in. “Women! Women! What do you know about them?”
Paul spared no time on the misogynist distraction and pressed on, “Did she tell you anything?”
The nylon-vest uncle had another sip of tea to clear his throat. “I saw she was leaving and so I asked her, ‘Hey! Is that your friend in there?’ (I mean you, of course.) She said, ‘Sorta.’ I could tell she was a little nervous; well, to be fair, I’m a dodgy-looking old bloke, aren’t I? Anyway, I said to her, ‘Hey, why is he not leaving with you? It’s still a bit dark out there. Let the boy walk you home.’”
“Then she said something quite strange,” interjected the red-cap uncle. “What was it? About a pot or something.”
“I remember,” said the nylon-vest uncle. “She told me, ‘I’ll be fine, mister. When the time is right, I’ll see him again under the pot.’ And just like that, she ran off.”
“What pot?” the red-cap uncle muttered. “My head’s gone to pot! Oh, women, women!”
Paul nevertheless knew exactly what Stacey meant. Since 2011, the Legislative Council had moved into its current venue in Tamar, which featured a pot-like exterior that seemed to Paul a stroke of architectural prophecy befitting the many plots of frog-boiling politics cooked up within its capacity. “Under the pot” therefore referred to the protest area located at the Legco’s ground-floor entrance—the epicentre for both the 2012 National Education Controversy and the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Paul thanked the gentlemen, put on a hideous “I Love HK” T-shirt and started to head home. Outside the McDonald’s, the air was still a bit choky and the sky was yet to brighten up; but his hope was not deferred.
The darkest hour is just before the dawn, Paul reminded himself. The nylon-vest uncle was right. God willing, there’ll come a time and a place he’ll meet Stacey again—
Without fear, without regret, without the gear, and without the masks.
*** THE END ***
Photo Courtesy: BBC, SCMP & HKFP