Compassion in the Past Tense

In my memory, she was a frail, waif-like, sad-looking girl with long messy hair. She used to like eating popsicles, which did her teeth a lot of harm. She had a wonderful father who doted on her.

That was over fifty years ago. She was surnamed Lau, and was in the same class as I for three years during our six primary school years. Her father seemed to have been an unemployed middle- to old-aged man and they used to live in a small room within a subdivided flat in the building that housed the old New York cinema on Hennessy Road. I never recalled her ever mentioning about her mother.

Another classmate surnamed Fung used to live nearby at Canal Road while I used to live at Tang Lung Street, also close to where Lau lived. There was a time when the three of us used to go to school and leave together.

Lau’s father always wore a warm smile on his haggard face. He never seemed to be in a bad mood despite what must have been a hard life for him, not having a job and having to live on his savings and to raise his daughter. Once in a while, Mr. Lau would treat the three kids to popsicles when he came to pick his daughter up after school.

Mr. Lau was skilled in English and he used to tutor Fung and I for free on weekends. When we went to his home for our lessons, we never once saw his wife and we presumed he was a widower. Lau did not do particularly well in school and was weak in English, despite her father’s tutoring. She seemed always to be wearing a forlorn and distant expression on her face. In hindsight, she might have been suffering from some kind of depression, perhaps caused by the untimely death of her mother. But then I was too young to discern her problems.

One summer, I had the bad luck of being infected with a foot skin disease (or what the adults thought was a skin disease, but which might have been skin allergy, as I later found out that I am allergic to latex, and in those days, rubber rain boots were common footwear for children). I was subjected to the ordeal of soaking both my infected feet in a medicated vinegar solution for hours on end. My sore, badly inflamed, toes got all glued together with pus oozing out. But skipping school was not an option. So for almost a whole week, my mother called a rickshaw to take me to school.

On the first day of that painful week, when school time ended, I was in great anguish, as I couldn’t figure out how to get home. Walking that distance, albeit only a 15-minute stretch, was a mission impossible, as my swollen feet, loosely tucked into a pair of sandals, just weren’t up to the task. As I was almost reduced to tears, Lau tried to calm me down. Then I saw Mr. Lau waving to me from a distance. Approaching, he crouched down to let me climb on his back, and he carried me all the way home, with Lau and Fung trailing behind. It turned out that Mr. Lau had already kindly promised my mother that he would carry me home after school. He repeated the generous act for the rest of the week without being asked.

I have never forgotten and will never forget that kind gesture of Mr. Lau’s.

Fung, Lau and I went to different secondary schools. Sadly, I lost contact with Lau ever since and have never met her or her father again. Fung also came from a very poor family with many children and she was not taken good care of by her parents in those days. Fung and I met a few times after our secondary school graduation and then we lost contact with each other. Neither Lau nor Fung emerged at our primary school’s 50th anniversary reunion in 2007.

I wish with all my heart that they are leading a contented and meaningful life and are surrounded by people who love them, wherever they may be.