A Stranger in the Alley
By Sandra Ding
During most daily commutes, one only sees strangers and doesn’t look closely.
On an early evening in October, while the city dwelled in a soft, yellow haze, amid the bustle of the streets filled with the shuttling of vehicles came a tram, which stopped for a moment before it clanged away. A woman in her mid-twenties stepped onto the sidewalk. Its iron-grey pavers gleamed with recent rain that had brought freshness to the air, but the wind was harsh and tingly and already bore the chill of a wintry night. A stylish office outfit, a dark russet suit and a pair of black suede heels that produced sharp clicks, highlighted the elegance of her figure. A tawny leather bag dangled from her shoulder; inside it placed a copy of her newly published memoir, My Lost Father. With briskness in her pace, she walked past a row of amber ginkgoes, her shadow cast beneath her by a beam of faint daylight filtered through fan-shaped leaves. Half a mile into the distance, the street ended in an alley, one she knew well since her childhood.
There, she turned around the corner, where a giant parasol tree reaching six storeys always kept the alley sheltered from sunlight. On both sides stood low-rise dwellings that were built decades earlier and waited to be demolished. Her apartment was in the northern end, stifling hot in summer and fiercely cold in winter, the only legacy left by her deceased mother. The thud of her heels echoed throughout the pass, each step sending her further from the noise in the city. Through dim light spread by a few glittering windows, she made out a stranger walking towards her. A long trench coat swayed around his knees. Grey sideburns running down past his ears were immediately noticeable from a front angle. His hooded eyes appeared deep with surrounding wrinkles that revealed years of weariness. His lips, carrying the hint of a smile, had the same crescent shape as hers. His protruding forehead also shared a clear resemblance, forming fine lines when he raised his brows. A metre before her, he paused, leaving just enough space between them to converse with a slight awkwardness.
“Janice.” He took his hands out of his pockets. “How have you been?”
The sudden encounter caused her to stand in complete stillness. While their gaze locked for a full ten-second, a series of blurry images flashed in her head like an old movie. After ten years, she had no trouble recognizing him. Other than mild hoarseness, his voice didn’t change much, still strong and husky, with a habit of stressing the last syllable of each word he spoke.
Her memory of him began at the age of six. She loved the vanilla scent of the marshmallow stick clutched around his sturdy fingers outside her kindergarten; she cherished the cozy sunshine streaming on his tanned side profile while he read fairy tales; she found courage in the hearty cheers he shouted while she dashed in a relay; she felt the warmth of his hands on hers gripping the handlebars of her bike. “You need to learn how to ride,” he told her when she reached eight. “I can’t carry you forever.” And thus, he guided her but let her find her own balance on the wheels. As a learner, she fell twice, for she spun too fast and her concentration wavered. “Don’t be afraid of falling,” he advised her, “Learn from failures but focus on the road ahead of you.” On her tenth birthday, he bought her a silver Parker pen engraved with her initials and proudly announced, “One day, you’ll use it to change the world.” Through the glint in his eyes, she knew she would become a journalist like him. The pen, contained in a metal box wrapped in a piece of kraft paper, had lain in a desk drawer until years later she took it out to write her first published journal article.
Her memory of him faded after the age of twelve. His growing success in journalism, unfortunately, came at the price of his frequent absences from home. Their house was no longer infused with chatter and laughter a happy family would have, but loneliness a mother and a daughter had to endure. “He no longer loved us” was the only explanation her mother offered over a glass of beer. Over time, he became a familiar stranger, with whom she didn’t know how to maintain a conversation. Then one night, she heard a quarrel and a smack of furniture from the room next to hers. Its door thumped open. He dragged his suitcase across the icy floor and hurried downstairs. From the window in her room, she saw him stride down the alley, passing each lamp post mounted between every two dwellings. The wheels of his suitcase clattered on the ground until the night hushed and he vanished behind the parasol tree.
Ten years passed since she had last seen him. There were days she blamed him for his impromptu departure and nights she secretly prayed for his return. As life went on like an ocean, rarely smooth and often rough, she learned to be a good sailor who let the waves of her anger and sorrow ebb. Day by day, she remembered less of him, but never forgot a handful of lessons he had taught her and the dream career he had instilled in her young mind. Under a table lamp, she translated her lost feelings into written words, as the nib of her fountain pen traversed three-hundred pages of a memoir to be read by the world.
Now he was in front of her, her eyes involuntarily flicked wide open but her gaze turned somewhere remote in the background. Whether she was admiring the beauty of the dusk or moaning for the dullness of the alley, she couldn’t tell.
“You still look the same as the little girl I remember.” He softened his voice a little, leaving a touch of affection in his tone. “But I’ve aged greatly.”
Her lips parted, she muttered a sound, barely audible to her own ears. Words seemed choked back by a state of astonishment and confusion.
“I’m glad I’ve found you here,” he continued.
In an instant of silence, she took a glance and saw his eyes brighten with obvious gaiety. Unwilling to break conversation etiquette, she uttered a line of courtesy, “It’s good to see you as well after such a long time.”
“I read your memoir. It’s a great work. I’m very proud of you.”
Her heart drummed with excitement. It was the moment she had been waiting for ages, for him to get inside her inner world through exquisite lines of her prose.
Before she could craft a response, he drew a deep breath and continued, “Look, I’m sorry for what happened ten years ago. There was a lack of communication.”
The air grew stale as silence resumed between them.
Lost in a flush of emotions, she could no longer bury the question inside her. “Why did you leave us?”
“I wasn’t a man willing to take responsibilities and thought it’d be the best for all of us if I just left, but I was wrong.” His gaze momentarily dropped to his feet. “You mentioned in the book your mom passed away. How’re you holding up?”
“I’ve been doing well. You know if you stayed, mom might not have died so early. She was greatly distressed and hoped you’d come back.”
“I’m really sorry. I wish I could start over so I wouldn’t have made the same mistake.”
“But you can’t go back in time.” Her voice was flat and her countenance nonchalant, despite a tremor in her breath.
“Perhaps it isn’t fair to ask for your forgiveness, but I want you to know I’ve never stopped loving you and your mom.”
Her head lowered slightly into a brief nod, but her eyes didn’t meet his the whole time. Was it a tinge of resentment she still held against him or a fear of love she long craved?
“Anyway, I still live in the town so …” The affection in his tone dissipated into sombreness and disillusionment. Those wrinkled eyes lingered on her face for a while before they darkened and looked away. “It’s late now. I should get going. You take care.”
With a heavy sigh, he turned to face the other end of the alley.
How she wished she could still rewrite the ending of her memoir! Before he left, she had thought of boasting about her accomplishments at work, had thought of sharing bits and pieces of her life he had missed over the years, but all her thoughts evaporated into thin air the moment she saw him walk away, like how he didn’t bother to stay on that dreadful night. A gust of wind ruffled her long hair and dried the tears welling up in her eyes. Slowly, she moved towards the entrance of her building, and before entering, watched his figure diminish into the feeble twilight behind the parasol tree, wondering when she would see him again.