24 October 2016
"She beams, chest heaving from all those twirls and leaps, cheeks flushed and eyes still piercing as her friends cheer." Photo:
"She beams, chest heaving from all those twirls and leaps, cheeks flushed and eyes still piercing as her friends cheer." Photo:

[Hong Kong's Top Story 2015] The Tin Soldier

The last thing I remember seeing before I plunged into the abyss was the sparkle of sequins on a fluttering black dress.

As I came to my senses, I realized that I was lying on my side with my cheek resting on the stinging ice, while my legs lay limply on top of each other. All I could hear were voices shouting and swift scrapes of blades against the ice edging closer.

The world was a blur, and all that I know is that the practice performance of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” had come to a halt as I found myself twitching and unable to move under the spotlight.

Out of the corner of my misty vision, a shimmering black blob knelt down close to my face as I closed my eyes, shutting myself out of the dizzying world.

* * *

The sterile light at the doctor’s clinic beat down on me like the sun.

“Forget ice-skating, walking may even become a problem for you,” Dr. Fung said as he examined my leg swaddled in bandages. Mom stared uneasily as she crossed her legs.

“You had a mild concussion when your head hit the ice.” He glanced at his black clipboard. ”You were quite lucky, you know, that fall might have paralyzed you.”

I could hardly believe what I heard. A single, wayward, spinning jump had left me with a double fracture in my right knee and four snapped tendons. The physician tried to explain as diplomatically as possible that these injuries weren’t minor and would at least take a year to fully heal. The worst case was that I’d never be able to figure skate anymore, but according to Dr. Fung, regular physiotherapy sessions should get me back on track.

“I certainly hope so,” Mom sighed impatiently.

“Don’t worry,” Dr. Fung said as he gave me a tight-lipped smile, “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

* * *

Mavis sits next to me in the locker room in her signature black sequin dress and leans on my shoulder, tracing the white gauze of my leg cast with her finger.

I think about how we’ve been friends since the first day. We knew each other in first grade and had the same shoe size. She helped me tie my laces and I tied hers, then holding each other’s tiny cold hands, we planted our wobbly, bladed feet on the ice for the first time. Ever since the first day, every Tuesday had been reserved for practice, then lunch together in the nearby café where we would get ice-cream afterwards.

I want things to stay like this forever.

“Does it hurt?”

“Nah.” I grin and pat my leg as Mavis glances away.

“Coach said that Emily will take over for you in the performance, is that okay?”

I nod. Somehow, I feel as if something sharp is stuck in my throat.

“Just do your stretches and don’t skip therapy, okay?” Mavis gives me a sad little smile and straps on her bootlaces as she sets off onto the rink, joining Emily and the others.

I follow her out, pull myself a plastic chair and simply watch.

* * *

Years rewind like a tape. We were both seven years old. Coach told us that if we were good enough, we would be selected to perform in shows and competitions next year.

“I … I can’t do it,” muttered Mavis. “I can’t do the single leg lift, and coach will yell at me again.”

She clutched the railing and stared at the snowy ground with flushed cheeks, looking as if she wanted to cry.

I blinked and reached out my arms. “Here, hold onto my shoulders instead.”

Her gloved hands clasped at my shoulders as she glanced up with glossy eyes that brimmed with frustration.

“There we go, nice and slow,” I said as I gave her a soft, reassuring grin and began to skate backwards, with her slowly shuffling and lifting up her leg while I pulled her forward slowly. Her single foot glided beneath us as I stared at her face and she stared back at mine. I began to pick up the pace before she switched feet and leaned forward again, gradually gaining speed. She had started to get the hang of it and I slowly swerved out of her way as she spread out her arms.

“Hey! Jolyne, I did it!”

I gleamed as the white light from the glass windows outside danced in her hair.

”See? Just a piece of cake.” I caught up with her in quick strides.

She laughed and turned a sly grin towards me, giving me a playful push on my back.

* * *

There are two kinds of rain that the late summer brings.

One is the fresh crisp drizzle that cleanses the earth, and the other plainly suffocates. The flat air expands in my lungs, weighing me down. The rain clings to my skin and drags my step like a block of lead.

My leg slowly unravels itself from its swathing cocoon as months pass, but I still can’t skate. Coach had insisted that I came to watch the practices, and l sat alone in a plastic chair (which was meant for beginners who learnt how to skid their way across ice.)

I glance warily at the dim sky as I head towards the indoor practice rink in Festival Walk, in which I will not be practicing in, ironically.

If it wasn’t for this useless mass of flesh attached to my leg, I would be practicing for my part as the ballerina for “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”. Mavis and I were ecstatic when we got the part. The boy finds the flaw in his toy soldier and chucks him into the stove in distaste, but along with a gust of wind, the paper ballerina flies in with the soldier and they burn together, leaving behind a tiny heart of lead.

Ours was a girls-only team, so the choreographer decided to leave the tin soldier as female, and we went with it. Who wanted to do Swan Lake again?

As I arrive at the rink, Mavis and Emily are already practicing for their part with the others. I remain seated in the usual plastic chair as I watch them perfect that mid-air twist and land as light as a feather. Emily took my part as the ballerina, and Mavis is the tin soldier.

The music starts, and Mavis begins her slow glide, raising her foot to her head as she sails across the toy room of the little boy. Closing her eyes to the music, she immerses herself into the character, leaps and swoops back down with the focused, piercing eyes of a black hawk. Then, the spotlight blares on Emily, her white and pink dress glowing. She twirls in place and leaps with a toe loop.

I watch and put my cheeks on my palms as I observe her footing carefully. This is the part where I lost my center and fell head-first onto the ice. Emily slides across the ice with a confident smile and Mavis follows suit, and I shrink into my seat, pulling out my phone and pretending to text my mother.

The practice ends smoothly, and everyone is dismissed. Mavis and Emily return to the sidelines while laughing about something I didn’t quite catch. Mavis spares me not a glance as she rushes towards the changing rooms, but Emily walks over to me in her bladed feet.

I’ve never got to know Emily that well since she joined a year ago, but talking with her for more than a minute gives me a headache.

I glance up from my phone as she waves to me with a broad smile plastered across her face.


What does it look like?

I cough a little and laugh, “Just tired.”

She smiles with her perfect teeth. “Wanna come with us to lunch?”

I remember my physiotherapy appointment and shake my head. ”You guys go, I got other things to do.”

She sticks out her bottom lip into a pout, “Aw, you’re no fun anymore.”

“It’s just …”

Emily is gone, catching up with Mavis and the others.

I stop myself from staring and collect my bags, thinking about the pitiful coupons for free ice-cream in my wallet as I leave the place.

* * *

I catch up with Mavis in the locker room after practice on Tuesday.

“Hey,” she says without glancing up from her bootlaces. Then she notices the leg cast and looks up. ”Need something? I’m in a rush.”

I turn my head to the side and suddenly, I take a great interest in the lockers beside us. It’s been at least three weeks since we talked face-to-face, and it feels like learning how to talk again.

“Um, not really. I was just wondering if you want to get ice-cream together afterwards?”

My words get swallowed towards the end.

She turns directly to me with a blank look, and I open my mouth but nothing comes out.

Mavis finishes with her laces and starts to tie up her hair into a tight bun.

“Look, I know it’s hard for you right now but I really need to practice for the show, okay?”

I nod slowly and swallow the lump in my throat. “It’s just afterwards.”

Mavis sighs. ”Listen, I can’t always be around you, and I got my team too, so you need to give me some time. This is really important to me, Jolyne.”

I feel my lip become bloodless beneath my teeth, ”It’s my team too.”

The air tenses and a heavy invisible hand presses down on our heads. I shrink.

“I don’t have time for this, Jolyne, and it’s not my fault that you broke your leg anyway!” She reaches for her black gloves.

I feel black, sour bile rising in my throat, and the little set of scales that keeps my emotions at bay sways dangerously in my head.

“Watching you guys from the sidelines is just so fun, you know!”

Mavis shoves her locker closed and turns around with a curled lip. ”If you’re gonna be like this, you can leave. I don’t need this negativity affecting my performance.”

Silence follows after she swoops onto the rink like a storm, and I am left standing like a deer in the headlights with a severed foot.

* * *

Chopin’s Nocturne in C Minor slows to a stop, and Mavis lowers her bladed feet, almost delicately, onto the ground. The tin soldier has toppled into the furnace and the ballerina follows suit, burning pitifully in the blaze, together forever.

Like claps of lightning, applause floods from the stands to the rink as Mavis holds Emily’s hand and takes a deep bow, dress glittering in the spotlight. She beams, chest heaving from all those twirls and leaps, cheeks flushed and eyes still piercing as her friends in the foyer cheer. The diamonds embedded in her black gloves glitter with the camera flashes as she and Emily give a sparkly flourish. I could see the judges scribbling frantically at their score sheets.

Mavis is a shining black figure above the blinding white, and I sink into my seat like an ice-cream cone in the sun.

Continuing tides of “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” surge into my thoughts as I clutch my head on my palms. My fingers are locked in my hair as that disgusting bile reaches up my throat again. I look up from my palms and my eyes scream jealousy as the pair return to the sidelines.

The little voice stirred in my head. They’ve all left you, and they don’t want you anymore!

Maybe I am destined to be the tin soldier all along, with my defective limb, who only want to dance with the paper ballerina. But in this version of the story, the tin soldier topples herself over and falls into the furnace by herself, leaving all the other tin and paper people as they watch.

Snapping out of my thoughts, I peer at the rink again, only to catch a glimpse of Mavis as she suddenly turns her head to glance back at me. I catch her eye, and that empty look which I couldn’t comprehend leaves me staring back blankly into the vast whiteness.

The fragile set of scales within me tips over, and it finally opens the floodgates which have been sealed up along with the bandages of my leg.

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Third Prize winner - Hong Kong's Top Story 2015

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