The Tissue-paper Man
By Gemma Pereira
Ah Lim slouches against the curved wall of the underpass. It fits neatly against the hunch of his back like a black coat tailored to fit the body of a corpse to make it look like it is still alive. His sunken eyes stare hopefully at each person who passes by. It is nearly lunchtime and his knees ache from standing for the past three hours but the rumbling in his stomach gets more insistent. His upturned cap hangs limply in his hand, empty.
To distract himself, he opens up a precious packet of tissue paper. His hands tremble visibly, the effect of Parkinson's that has recently started to plague him. He pulls out a piece of tissue paper and starts to fold it in half. He has little control over the feathery tissue and the folds are uneven. He unfolds it and tries again, his shaking fingers laboriously held steady for a few triumphant gaps of time when he manages to press the tissue in place properly. Yet another hour passes, and his work is finally complete. A graceful crane bends its head towards him in his hand.
Further down in the underpass, a middle-aged man plays an upbeat tune. He has caught the crowd at the right time. They are ripe for the picking—their bellies swollen with lunch, the chosen restaurant with just the right portion of ambience, subservient waiters and pernickety gossiping to massage the bruised egos of their mindless existence in the little square spaces of their offices that equated their monthly worth at approximately three thousand dollars a month. Feeling magnanimous and slightly fatter, they drop their ten-cent and twenty-cent coins, ridding themselves of the guilt of their indulgent lunch into his little metal container.
When they reach the old man, they have no more change on them and pointedly ignore his gaze as he holds his tissue packets out towards them. They will remember to buy from him tomorrow, they think to themselves, before lunch, (so they can use the packets to reserve their seats.)
"How much for two packets?" a kind stranger asks.
"Two for one dollar," he replies.
"And the bird. One dollar?" he asks hopefully. She smiles at him but shakes her head and leaves.
Four hours. Two dollars. Lunch is still impossible. Chicken rice costs two dollars and fifty cents. Mee pok is three dollars. Even if he just buys some rice and vegetables, it would cost him more than two dollars.
When would the next person come?
Ah Lim watches jealously as the singer sways with his guitar. His jeans and his sixties-styled sideburns make him appear like an ageing teenager. His nasal voice skips and jumps as he does a poor imitation of Elvis Presley every time a coin drops into his box.
"Thank you vera-much!"
The post-lunch crowd swings their hips heavily as they are the only ones in the underpass. A man twirls like an elephantine ballerina. Giggling hysterically, he chucks a dollar coin into the metal box.
The rumbling in the old man's stomach churns his insides sickly. As he clutches his hand against it, he feels a roll of gas that causes his skin to protrude. Staggering, he leans against the wall and moves towards the singer. Maybe he could ask for fifty cents. They say hello sometimes.
The singer watches the old man through his yellow sunglasses. He skips a verse and goes back to the chorus, his strumming growing wild, his head bobbing to the beat, strands of oiled hair shivering at the pace of his shaking head. The lyrics blend into a garbled words.
When Ah Lim reaches him, he shuts his metal box and slides his guitar back into his case, two verses left unsung. He smiles and nods at the old man, turns his back and walks away briskly.
Too exhausted from the struggle to reach him with his burning stomach, Ah Lim leans against the familiar curve of the wall, like a second layer of skin that has seeped deep inside him. He holds out his hands weakly, tissue paper in one hand, cap in the other, with the little tissue-paper crane inside. The underpass is empty and silent. Everyone has had their lunch and gone back to work.
The movement in his hands is uncontrollable now. He is unable to grasp the tissue paper and it slips to the ground softly. He leans over to pick it up, but his vision has become blurred. His breathing turns to short gasps. The acid in his stomach burns. The rushing blood thins in his head. He grabs the tissue paper. He misses. He falls.
There is a loud crack. It is his skull.
He lies still. Beneath the traffic. Beneath the restaurants. Beneath the shopping malls. Beneath the offices. Beneath the houses.
As he is falling, he sees a little girl at the edge of the underpass, running towards him. She stops in front of him and stares hard, ignoring her mother's agitated screams. She picks up the tissue-paper crane and strokes it gently. She puts a fifty-cent coin her mother had given to her earlier into his cap and pretends that the crane is flying in the air. Her mother has caught up with her now.
"What's that?" She demands.
"A bird! A bird!" she squeals playfully.
"You took it from that man?"
"Yes, but I paid him fifty cents!"
Her mother stares at Ah Lim's lying prostrate on the floor and covers her nose as she notices an empty beer can at his feet. She snatches the tissue-paper crane from her daughter, but she struggles and tries to keep it. Then she smacks her daughter hard on her hand, tears it from her hands and squashes it.
The little girl starts to cry but her mother drags her away, not noticing the pool of blood that has started to seep into the concrete of the underpass.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012