19 October 2018
"You know there’s a tree on my way to work,” he said. “I’ve passed it every day for years. It’s an African tulip tree, and every spring it has beautiful red flowers like cups held up to receive something." Photo: Wikipedia Commons
"You know there’s a tree on my way to work,” he said. “I’ve passed it every day for years. It’s an African tulip tree, and every spring it has beautiful red flowers like cups held up to receive something." Photo: Wikipedia Commons

[Hong Kong's Top Story 2016] The African Tulip Tree

“Look at this!” the man said, holding out a page from his newspaper.

The boy looked up from his homework. The woman glanced at the man, then picked up a plate and went into the kitchen. The man went over to the table and draped the paper across it as though it was fine cloth.

“Look at this,” he said. “This is where we should be living. This is the right kind of environment for a family.”

The boy peered through his black framed glasses at the page. There was a waterfall with birds and butterflies hovering above it. Beyond that, scarlet parrots swooped over a dense green canopy and in the foreground a family sat picnicking on grass the colour of a rice paddy.

The boy read the fancy writing at the top of the page.

Eden Garden

Shouldn’t you be Living in Paradise?

The woman came back into the room and glanced at the paper.

“It’s time for this family to change direction,” the man declared, tapping the newspaper.

He went over to the window and stared down. “Nothing to see here but buildings and roads.”

As if stung by the criticism, a car sounded its horn and another followed. Soon a crescendo of angry car horns rose up between the high rise blocks. “There’s nothing natural here,” said the man.

The woman shook her head and waved her hand at the ad. “And how much do you think a unit in that place would cost? When did we win the Mark 6?”

The man glanced at his jacket hanging on the back of a chair. There was a ticket for the latest draw inside the top pocket. No one had won for the last three draws and if that came up …

“What this family needs to do,” the woman continued, “is to hold on to what it’s got, not dream about living in paradise.”

The boy pulled the paper away from his books and carried on with his homework.

The man went over to the chair by the window and slumped down. When he began speaking it was as if he was addressing himself. 

“You know there’s a tree on my way to work,” he said. “I’ve passed it every day for years. It’s an African tulip tree, and every spring it has beautiful red flowers like cups held up to receive something. I see it from the top deck of the bus and all around there is nothing but grey concrete. Concrete pavements, concrete roads. And there’s this one spindly little tree that lights up the whole area every spring.”

The man went quiet again. The boy had never heard him talk like this. He wondered if he was going to cry. The sound of dishes being washed came from the kitchen.

“The tree will be in bloom again soon. Perhaps I’ll take you to see it,” he said. The boy met his father’s stare for a moment, then turned back to his books.

The next evening at dinner the man started again. “I think we should go out and see the place,” he said.

The woman stopped chewing. “What place?” she said.

The man sighed. “Eden Garden,” he said. “We can go there on Sunday.”

“What’s the point?” the woman said. “What’s the point of getting everybody’s hopes up over a place we can never afford? We would need to win the Mark 6 three times running to buy anything in that place.”

The man leaned forward. “I’ve been talking to the boss,” he said. “I’m in with a chance of promotion if we hit the targets and the work keeps coming in. We can borrow the rest. Low interest rates; everybody’s doing it.”

The woman stared at him. “And get ourselves into so much debt that we can never get out of it just to look at a … a waterfall.”

“It’s not just that.”

“Well what is it then?”

“The boy is growing up in this …” The man waved his arm towards the window. “All he sees is this environment. He doesn’t see anything natural from one year to the next. When I was a boy…”

“He’s doing okay,” said the woman. She put an arm around his shoulders and the boy squirmed. “He needs to concentrate on his homework and think about getting into university. That’s what he needs to do and you’re distracting him with all this empty talk.”

“It’s not empty talk,” snapped the man, and the two stared at each other. “We’re going,” said the man. “On Sunday.”

On the top deck of the bus they sat on the left near the front. The boy sat behind his mother and father, his thumbs tapping the screen of his phone. Occasionally the man would point something out but nobody acknowledged him.

“This is the way I come to work,” he said at one point, as they turned onto a main road.

The boy looked at his parents for a moment. It struck him that they had got dressed up for the occasion. His father was wearing a black jacket and white work shirt. His mother had put on a beige jacket edged with grey fur. Perhaps they really were going to move. He felt a pain in his stomach at the thought.

“This is the place,” said the man.

“I hope so,” said the woman, “it’s the end of the line.” On the pavement the other passengers hurried away.

“I can’t see it,” said the man. “I’ll ask the driver.” The boy watched his father talk to the driver and saw the man point down the road. When he returned the woman said, “How far?”

“About ten minutes,” said the man.

The woman shook her head. “So this is what we’re spending our Sunday doing.”

The boy walked behind his parents. The sun was bright and the day was clammy. Soon the man and woman had taken off their jackets. As they rounded a corner a great grey wall reared up in front of them. The woman stopped. “It’s a building site.”

The man pulled a white cloth out of his jacket pocket and dried his brow. “It is at the moment,” he said. “But it’s not going to stay like that. Look at the area. Look at the hills over there.”

The boy put his hand above his brow and squinted into the distance.

“We’ve come all this way to see this,” said the woman.

“Come on,” said the man, “we’re nearly there.” They walked another five minutes next to the busy road until they came to a gate where a great cement mixer was pulling out.

The man approached a worker in a yellow helmet. “Is there somewhere I can ask about the development?” he said.

The worker told him to try an office further down the road. “There might be somebody there,” he said.

The man looked at his wife and son on the pavement. A sudden gust of wind blew dust across them and the woman coughed and wafted her hand in front of her face.

“Let’s try it,” said the man, and they began walking again.

They found a small portacabin next to another gate. Inside two men were talking animatedly.

“Let’s go home,” said the woman.

“Wait,” said the man. He entered the gate and knocked on the cabin door. The door opened and a man in a blue checked shirt stared at him.

“I want to ask about Eden Garden,” he said. The man looked at the boy and woman and invited them in. It was cool inside and an air conditioner rattled away in the corner. “I’m interested in buying a unit,” said the man, “and I wondered if we could see the plans.”

“This is not the sales office,” the man said. There was a pause. “But I suppose I can show you something.”

He took down a great roll of paper from a shelf and spread it on the table. They all stared at it. “That’s the housing. And that’s where the supermarket and shops will be,” he said, pointing dead centre.

“Oh,” said the man. “So the waterfall will be on the other side.”

“What waterfall?” said the man.

“In the newspaper ad it showed a waterfall and a …”

“I think we should go,” said the woman.

“Oh, that’s just the marketing people getting carried away,” said the man. “I’ve heard them talk. They call it selling a concept. I deal with the reality side of things.”

They walked in silence back the way they had come. The day was hotter and dust blew across the pavement and made them squint.

A taxi slowed but sped away when the man ignored. They crossed into a housing estate and the boy stopped to watch some teenagers playing basketball. That’s what he would have been doing if he’d stayed at home, he thought.

“Come on,” shouted the man. “Let’s find a bus.”

This time the bus was crowded and the boy sat with his mother. The man sat near the front. The boy and his mother watched the TV. A woman was demonstrating how to keep fit. She had on a sports bra and the boy watched her smile as she patted her sheer stomach.

He stared out of the window for a moment and when he looked back at the TV there was a fountain spraying water into the air as vividly coloured birds flitted above it. The words Eden Garden came up on the screen. He was going to shout to his father but he heard his mother groan and lower her head. He suddenly felt very hungry and wondered when they would eat.

“We’re getting off.” It was his father’s voice. His mother looked panicked. “Where are we going?”

People began to turn their heads. His father was at the top of the stairs now, his thumb on the bell. He didn’t look at them. The boy and his mother rose and struggled to the top of the stairs.

When they stepped onto the pavement the man was already some distance away. “Where are we going?” shouted the woman, but he didn’t answer. The boy looked at his mother. Was she going to cry, there on the street? They caught up with the man in a little plaza, fifty yards up the road. He was standing staring at something.

The woman went to his side. “What is it?” The man looked straight ahead.

“It’s the African tulip tree,” the man said. “It’s the tree I see on my way to work every day. They’re doing something to it.”

The woman looked at the tree. A pair of silver step ladders had been placed below the tree. Two men appeared. One held the steps steady and the other began climbing up. The man stepped forward from his wife.

“What are you doing?” he said. “Are you cutting it down?”

“Cutting it down?” said the man. “No, I’m dressing it up. It’s spring.” He reached forward and clipped a large red flower to the end of a branch. Then another.

“But what happened to the real flowers?” said the man.

The man at the top of the ladders looked quizzically at the three people staring up at him. “This is not a real tree,” he said.

The boy said, “Come on, Dad, let’s go.”

The woman squeezed her husband’s arm. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Let’s go home and have lunch.”

She drew him away from the tree, back towards the road and the roaring traffic.

[Top Story 2016]

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Third Prize winner (Adult Category) - Hong Kong's Top Story 2016

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