Strangely, I had a dream last night of the original muse that inspired this story – and I hadn’t even been thinking at all! Since it’s been almost seven years that I last wrote part four, perhaps it’s a timely continuation call.
I watched as the children ran towards him, screaming in delight as he squatted to their level to chat with them, eye to eye. Their excited faces spoke of how much they adored him as everyone spoke all at once, a flurry of activity. He was unflustered, attending to each of them in turn, attentively listening to their stories and responding as he would any adult person.
“Come with me somewhere,” he had said, after lunch.
“Where are we going?”
He only smiled and replied, “Somewhere.”
Well, the orphanage wasn’t quite the place I expected. But there I was with him. And as we enthusiastically waved goodbye to the cherubic faces, I thought it was a great idea after all.
“The kids love you,” I said, as the car pulled away from the building and onto the tree-lined boulevard.
“They love you too,” he said, with a grin.
“Well yeah… I guess. You seem to know them well.”
“I come here whenever I have time. More than just being a volunteer, I sometimes feel that what I give is incomparable to what they give me in return.”
The car slid onto the highway and he continued.
“You know my work… everyone thinks I have it good. I’m not complaining, but sometimes, I just want to put away that side of me, and just be… me. Without the music, the events, the posed photos, the constant need to feed my fans on social media… the real me.”
He stopped and gazed out, almost in deep thoughts, turning the steering wheel. The evening was giving the skies lovely hues of blue, lavender and gold.
“The children. They do not know who I am, only that I am a kindly uncle who visits them and plays with them. When I am with them, I can be real. No pretense, no makeup, no protocols. They bring me solace, much more than they know.”
Silence filled the air between us, but the sunset outside was at its most glorious. I took in a deep breath.
“I’m glad you got them.”
He turned to face me, giving me a smile as he let out a sigh.
“Well, let’s not waste the evening. Where do you want to go?” he asked with a wink.
“Well… perhaps some place local… and real,” I replied, raising my eyebrow as I winked back.
He laughed and the car sped off towards our next destination.
It was night fall when we pulled up near a rural market, a surprising bustle of warm lights and mingling locals. As we stepped out of the car, the aromas of grilled squid and the salty sea breeze concocted a delicious invitation as we made our way towards the entrance.
The market was a riot of activity; middle-aged shopkeepers peddled their ware forcefully, waving their hands towards their goods, cooks swiftly preparing each serving like clockwork, deft yet mechanical, dishing out hot foods by the bowls, or the boisterous office workers still in their suits, red-faced with liquor, each trying to out-yell the other, breaking out into rambunctious laughter as they passed us. He turned to me and shrugged, then beckoned me to follow him. I nodded as I squeezed past the throngs, frantically trying not to lose sight of him as he made his way through.
No one seemed to notice him.
Finally, we came to a stretch where it was quieter and easier to talk. We stopped to buy some snacks and ate as we walked. As he explained the history of the place, I was admiring the sights and sounds when suddenly he exclaimed.
“Oh! We have to go in here!”
I looked at where he had stopped at – it was a costumes shop. From the glass windows we could see the colourful display of traditional costumes; further in, I could make out what looked like party outfits, wigs and accessories. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the dinghy, dimly lit store.
He went to the door, gave it two respectful knocks, then reached for the doorknob. Giving it a twist, he pushed open the door and stepped inside, the bell attached tinkling lightly as I followed close behind.
The space was filled with neatly arranged racks of costumes – traditional costumes, party costumes, character costumes, children costumes. In the wooden cabinets that lined the perimeter of the store, there were wigs and accessories, crowns for kings, tiaras for princesses, swords for knights. As I gazed in awe at the intricately made pieces, an elderly man stepped out from the door at the back.
“Hello, may I… ah, you’re here! And who’s your friend?”
“Hello and yes, I am here! This is my friend who has just arrived from overseas. She is here for a short visit and I am playing tour guide tonight.”
He gave me a wink.
“Ah I see! And you thought to bring her to this old dusty store?”
The elderly man chuckled heartily, coming forward to take my hand. Giving it a warm yet study handshake, he gave me a grin.
“Sir, you are too humble! You have so many beautiful costumes here!”
“Yes indeed, they are many. This shop was passed down from my grandfather to my father, and now I am the old fogey here.” He let out another chuckle. “Which one would you like to try on?”
I gasped. “Wh-what… try on? But they look exquisite… I wouldn’t want to tear any of them accidenta-“
“Oh don’t worry about that my dear,” the elderly man interrupted kindly. “Go on, pick one.”
I glanced at him and he nodded. Slightly hesitant, I went to one of the racks and browsed through some of the items but was soon enthralled by them. I went to the next rack and still, the next. Meanwhile, he too was taking a casual browse, throwing me an amused grin as he caught my eye.
When we met back at the counter, we had each picked out one. The elderly shopkeeper gestured towards the back of the shop. He was already at the back door and held it open for me as I stepped in. There were several spacious cubicles for clothes change and I eagerly stepped into one. As I was finishing up with my costume, I heard a light knock on my door.
“Are you alright in there?”
“Yeah… I just… I’m almost done…” With that, I opened the door.
I had to gasp. He was wearing a warrior costume that accentuated his features, exuding a presence that was both subtle yet intimidating.
“You look great! I would believe you are an archer if you’d walk out into medieval streets.”
“Uh… thanks…” I felt myself blushing somewhat. “I’ve always been intrigued by archery. Now I have a small taste of it I guess.”
The elderly shopkeeper came and nodded his approval. “Would you both like a photo together?”
I gasped and nodded in delight as I handed him my phone. He too handed him his, giving me another wink. We struck a few poses and finally a few were satisfactory enough for the elderly shopkeeper to snap a few pictures.
We thanked the shopkeeper for his kind gesture and stepped out of the shop; the rest of the shops were beginning to close for the day. As we strolled down the streets, he would greet some of the store owners and they always returned his greeting with a bow and a smile or a wave.
“You come here often too, I see.”
“Yes, whenever I have time.”
Still the same answer, and I became acutely aware of how differently he spent his free time from what I would expect a person like him to.
“There is just one more place I would like to take you. It’s just the perfect time of day for it.”
“Oh okay, sure…” I was feeling the fatigue from not having rested well on the flight and having spent the whole day on my feet.
We turned into an alley and walked along it, our path lit by the stark lights that lined the streets. There were bags of trash outside the doors and some parts of the road were uneven with loose cobbles but he seemed oblivious to them.
Crossing the road, I pulled my jacket tighter around me – a cool night breeze was beginning to blow and although it was warm for the season, the wind seemed to feel otherwise. It got stronger as we walked towards the sandy strips ahead, where the sounds of waves lightly crashing onto the shore made a lulling rhythm.
We walked on the soft sand without a word, and after a while came to a thick stumpy log which looked as if it had been there for a long time.
“Let’s sit here.”
He sat down and gestured for me to sit beside him. I tried not to let my tiredness show by landing as gently as I could on the log.
“Here’s where I come whenever I need a peaceful space. I can steep in my own thoughts without anyone intruding.”
“But… can’t you do that in your home?”
He let out a short laugh, then took a deep breath before letting it out through his mouth.
“Not really. Where I live is not what you would call a home. It’s just a place for me to rest from work. It is lavish enough for me to make attractive selfies and glamorous vlogs for social media. While I would say I’m a collector of art and finer things in life, I too am just a human craving a normal life sometimes.”
The moonlight made silvery edges on the waves as they landed just a short distance away from our feet. The breeze had subsided a bit, and I was silent.
“I did not tell anyone where I was going today, or who I was meeting. I just told my manager I was taking a day off. Even so, I had messages coming in, which infuriates me at times.” His brows furrowed in annoyance at the recollection but almost immediately dissolved.
“Well, it was a lovely day. Thank you so much for bringing me to these places,” I said warmly, meaning every word I said.
“I’m glad you enjoyed the day. I’m sorry I…“ he faltered. “… I imposed those places on you. It’s just that I hadn’t had a break for a while… and wanted to get away a bit.“
“I know. And thank you for sharing these places close to your heart with me.” Then, I gave him a wide grin. “Now I have insider scoop!”
He laughed, this time that deep hearty laugh that I first heard on that stage where I had fallen.
“Nah don’t worry, your secrets are safe with me.” I gave him a smile.
He returned my smile.
“Thank you.” He paused.
“And thank you for spending your first day here with me instead. I appreciate it… very much.”
The waves continued crashing, and we sat there for a little longer.
It was a day that would never come again, but it was a day we would always remember.
– End of part five –