I stared at him, and pity made my heart stretch like a balloon being inflated. Why is life so cruel? Why does life slowly, patiently, unceasingly seep out of us until we’re as dry and fragile as a fallen leaf?
The man (whom I was staring at) was wobbling, like a penguin, down the cobblestone path, his left hand shaking as it manoeuvred a walking cane for support, and his right arm cradling a large, green watermelon. A hunched back made him no taller than an average ten-year old child, white and unkempt hair made his head resemble a worn mop, and his melting skin made me think of wax sliding down a candle stick.
The pity inside me swelled until my heart hurt.
But life hadn’t merely stolen the pensioner’s vitality; it had also left him poor, as his clothing made evident. His faded leather shoes, and faded brown trousers, and faded grey jacket, all appeared to be older than their owner. Even the man’s cane was splintered and cracked and on the verge of snapping. The watermelon sleeping in his arm was the most expensive item on his person.
The pity had crawled through my heart, over my chest, up my neck, and into my eyes, which had turned moist.
Then, as if trying to provoke the mist in my eyes into drops of sympathy, the tip of the man’s shoe struck a protruding stone, and the man tumbled forward and into his cane, and his cane snapped, and his brittle body plunged to the ground.
"Oh, Lord," I cried, sprang off the garden bench, and rushed over to the fallen man. "Are you okay, sir? Here, let me help you up." I wrapped my arms around his bony frame and heaved as if performing the Heimlich Manoeuvre.
After a minute-long awkward struggle, the man was back on his feet and began patting himself down. Fortunately, a light scratch on his left palm, a couple of autumn leaves clinging to his jacket, and his broken cane, were the only damage the fall had caused. Nevertheless, I asked, "Are you hurt?"
His ancient eyes found mine. "That was my favourite cane," he croaked in a thick accent, then his eyes drifted to the watermelon standing on the grass next to the path and looking like a lost child. "At least the melon is unharmed."
I picked up the broken cane and the watermelon, which surprised me with its weight. "Yes, the melon is fine, what a miracle! May I carry these for you? I’m Sally, by the way."
The man blessed me with a frown and a long gaze, then he said, "I am Benjiro. Benjiro Hirata. I would like it very much if you carried those for me. My place is just up ahead, follow me."
We walked – or crawled? – down the path, through a garden, into a large building, down a long corridor, and stopped before a door numbered "107".
"This is my place," Mr Hirata said. He opened the door (which had been unlocked) and stepped inside.
A distinctive smell filled the room, the smell that only hovers around old people and their accumulated stuff. And the tiny room hosted many accumulated stuff: numerous stacks of books on the floor, old radios and computer parts shoved into a bookcase, two grandfather clocks that refused to tick, a water bottle sleeping on the small bed, and a table covered in papers and envelopes and worn stationary.
Mr Hirata made some space on the table. "Put the melon here, Sally."
I did. "I love your place, it’s cosy. How long have you lived here?"
"Ah! Let me show you." The old man wriggled to the bed, pulled out a box from under it, retrieved a photo album, and came back and placed the album on the table. "Look here." He opened the album and jabbed a photo with his crooked finger.
I gasped. There were only two people in the photo: Mr Hirata and myself. We were in this very room, seated at this very table, smiling while I was cutting a round cake. But why was I in the photo? And when had my hair become so thin and grey, and my shoulders so scrawny, and my skin so shrivelled up like melted plastic? "Mr Hirata," I cried, "why am I—"
Like an unexpected earthquake, a pain shot through my head, then my mind flooded with memories. I was Sally Green. Benjiro and I were close friends. My room was adjacent to Benjiro’s, it was room 106 at Coorpark’s Village For The Elderly.
"Do you remember?" my only friend asked.
"Good. I got you a watermelon to satisfy the craving you had earlier. Shall I slice the melon?"
I nodded. Then I burst into tears.