From her front-row seat on the upper deck of the tram, she can hear someone blasting music from their vehicle. She looks down to the road jammed with slow traffic and conjectures that the music must be coming from the truck in the next lane. She can see a thick, tanned and tattooed arm protruding out of the truck’s window, its fingers flicking a cigarette butt. The raucous voice of a rocker penetrates through the windows and steel body of her tram, vibrating, desperately chanting, “I want to ride my bicycle. Bicycle. Bicycle . . . .” She can relate to that.
When he was a toddler, her son felt that elation as he cruised the terrace of their condominium complex on his first two wheeled bike. It was a balance bike – one of those trendy ones that look like traditional children´s bikes except for the missing pedals and training wheels.
“Mama, I want to ride my bicycle!” she heard every afternoon as soon as he woke from his nap. The bike had won the stubborn little creature over from his very first look. He ran his hands over the large laser stickers on the bike’s glossy red frame, awestruck by how sparkly they were. He started out by straddling the black rubber saddle and walking the bike along with his toes on the floor. Within a day, he´d begun to rest his bottom comfortably on the saddle and scoot. He fell a few times, but he did not cry. Instead, he sat on the floor next to the toppled bike and spun its wheels by gripping and then shoving its tires until the woman stopped him. “Don’t play with the wheels! They’re dirty!” Sooner than she would have imagined, he lifted both legs to get a dose of the weightless joy achieved by rolling down the slopes on the terrace.
“Don’t stick out your tongue!” she´d shout after him, but by the time the last word had left her mouth she was staring at the back of his helmet.
“Tongue back in mouth!” she would yelp, snatching his skinny arm as he scooted past her a few moments later. Not unlike the way a robber on a motorcycle snatches a bag from a pedestrian´s shoulder – though in her case, she, the perpetrator, stood still to wait for the target, and the target would fly past on spinning wheels.
On the elevator rides back up to their condominium, he would hold up his hand in front of the woman waiting for her to give him a high five – something he had recently learned from his mini-soccer coach. If no one was around, she would reprimand him with her fiercest eyes, “Don’t stick out your tongue while running or biking! Do you want to bite off your tongue, huh?”
Her toddler soon stopped riding the bike. Now she wonders if, given the chance, she should make such a fuss over his carefree tongue if sticking it out would make him happier.
* * *
The first time it happened, it was an aluminum mop handle. Or it was rather likely not the first time it happened, but only the first time that the woman and her toddler were around to witness it. When the mop handle hit the red brick floor of the terrace, five meters from the children’s playground, it made a loud twanging sound that reverberated against the walls of the buildings and instantly caught her and her toddler’s attention. She waited for a while to observe the commotion and then said, “Let’s go see what happened.” She lifted him abruptly from the still spinning merry-go-round and swiftly put his feet on the yellow rubber playground mat, as easily and efficiently as if she were only taking out a water bottle from her purse and standing it up on a table. The toddler obediently let her take his wrist as they walked toward the site of the fall where a murmuring crowd of residents – children and their caregivers – had gathered. The mop handle was bent in the middle: it must have fallen from an upper-floor suite in the condominium tower behind the playground.
The condominium tower, like the other seven towers in the high-rise complex, was sixty-five stories high. On a cloudy day such as the day of the first incident, the towers pierced more clouds than all the neighbouring apartment buildings. The complex boasted one of the biggest resort-style clubhouses in a city that topped the world in square footage prices. The woman and her husband had moved into the condominium complex when they married and after conducting serious research to identify a perfect place to raise a child in the city. Massive clubhouse: yes. Top-rated children’s play facilities: yes, yes. Ranking “number one” as the real estate development with the highest child-to-adult ratio: yes, yes, yes!
The toddler stuck up his index finger and stiffly tapped it in the air as though it were a frozen baby carrot. “What’s that?” he asked. When the woman did not respond, he demanded with greater urgency, “What’s that stick? What’s that stick, Mama?”
“It looks like a mop handle.”
“What happened to the mop handle?” he asked. He was often mistaken for a girl because of his big, round doll eyes and his lightly tanned face whose shape matched his eyes’ roundness and whose cheeks flushed after only five minutes at the playground. He was only twenty-three months, but he could articulate in Cantonese. His eloquence would surprise strangers who had experience with very young children.
“Smart boy!” some would praise him.
“Not smart!” he would snap, scowling with genuine disgust.
“Someone has probably not placed it properly in their home, and it got blown out of the window by the wind. We’ve already called the police. They’ll investigate,” a property management manager who had been called to the scene, announced to the crowd.
* * *
She used to be an executive secretary before she became a full-time mother. Her eyes were always drawn to the most inconspicuous details, such as notices for residents that mutely sat in a dull corner among the plethora of black and white notices tacked to the condominium’s notice board.
Two months after the first incident, she spotted a notice in the lower right hand corner of the board. It was about a wooden folding chair – the style you would find in an average household back in the eighties – that had fallen from a window to the terrace floor. She leaned her nose closer to the notice to study the business card sized photo printed at the bottom of the notice, but she could not make out how broken the chair really was after the impact. Again? Which tower? Which floor?
“Can’t be disclosed,” replied the security guard at the front desk of the tower where she lived with her husband and toddler. She was a friendly guard to whom she and her toddler said “hello” every morning, and who would ask if they had eaten breakfast (or lunch) yet every day as they passed by the security desk.
“Should be Tower Five. Let me check… Tower five,” a property management manager nonchalantly said into the phone when she called his office.
Isn’t Tower Five next to the children’s playground? Neurons fired in the fear pathways of her brain like busy ants walking along crevices in a rock in one of the terrace’s flower beds.
“We’ve reported it to the police already. They’re still investigating,” the property management manager reported, trying to conclude the phone conversation with the woman.
* * *
Another two months passed, uneventful were you to put on a wide-angle lens and observe the condominium complex. But not for the woman and her husband who had celebrated with hugs, kisses, and jokes one milestone after another achieved by their toddler. His first time asking for a spoon to eat by himself. His first time conquering the climbing net at the playground. His first time saying a prayer for someone else: “Let Mama recover from flu.” Then came a day when the woman saw another new quiet notice downstairs. This time it was a paring knife. Same landing spot on the terrace – she found that out after a call to the property management office.
That night, the woman texted the few mothers she knew who lived in the complex. None of them were aware of the notices, and none of them sounded nearly as worried as she felt. So she wrote to the property management to express her concern. Will you increase manpower to patrol the terrace? Will you install a surveillance camera to catch the perpetrator? Will you post more conspicuous notices around the complex to alert the residents, especially the parents?
The office’s written response essentially restated that they had “already reported to the police, who are still investigating.”
She resorted to empty threats. I’ll report your office’s passivity to the media.
While her toddler was sleeping, she discussed the points of her case with her husband, and then went on to write up a story: the property management of a well-known real estate complex was being negligent with respect to children’s safety. She submitted her story to mainstream papers and tabloids. She and her husband assumed her story was newsworthy – but when after two weeks she had not received any responses, she realized her story could not compete with the gore of bizarre accidents, murders, the lurid nature of sex crimes, or even the comical effects of political scandals. Her story about an anticipated threat would not earn coverage until it had gained casualties that could be counted or unless it generated lewdness that could be narrated in detail or presented with graphics.
For as many months as she had carried her toddler in her womb, she kept him safe with her newly prescribed protective boundaries, avoiding the playground on the terrace or anywhere close to it. But, from the moment he´d drawn his fingers over the sparkling laser stickers on the bike, a yearning to chart new territory started germinating in his little mind. Every day he pushed his boundaries farther and farther. With the absence of new falling objects, a voice in her head started to question whether her protective measures were keeping her toddler from his most natural habitat. Eventually, she gave in quite willingly and let him ride his bike around the playground.
* * *
One day, when she was taking her toddler out to bike after his nap, her husband called her cell phone. She told him she´d forgotten to bring the toddler´s helmet. “Just don’t let him go too fast. He’ll be fine. He’s becoming so pro!” he assured her.
Before they´d hung up, a glass bottle of black tea fell from above and landed less than a meter from the toddler’s right running shoe. The tea splashed and stained ever so lightly his little red socks. The bottle broke into three large pieces, but didn’t even scratch his skin. She took some pictures of the broken bottle, the surroundings where it fell, and his little socks.
“We’re going to Tower Five now. We’ve got to park your bike here first. We’ll come back for it after we’re done,” she ordered her toddler, holding him by his wrist with one hand and parking his bike by a wall next to a feng-shui water wheel, which was being turned by a stream of water pouring from a water fountain above.
“Rock. This is rock,” said the toddler firmly, his index finger pointing at the water wheel.
“Yes, the water fountain and the wheel are made of rock.”
“Mama, did someone throw things? Throw out of the window again?”
When they entered Tower Five, there was pleasant familiar classical music playing on a digital grand piano that sat in the middle of the tower’s lobby. The tower where they lived had a digital grand piano, too, as did all the other towers in the condominium complex. As they did not live in Tower Five, she tried to come up with an excuse should they be stopped by the security guard.
“I let you ride my bike!” her toddler called out to the security guard at the front desk.
“Really? You’re a generous boy!” the security guard smiled and then stood to question a pizza delivery guy coming in behind them, taking down his personal information as was standard procedure. While the guard was distracted, they fell in behind a young woman and followed her into the elevator lobby.
“Mama, hold fingers, not wrist!”
“It was uncomfortable.”
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. Of course her tight grip was hurting him, he was so skinny. Perhaps he would not have been so if he were not such a fussy eater.
Taking her toddler’s hand, she went to every floor, starting at the penthouse and working her way down. She had a good sense of direction, so she picked out only the suites facing the children’s playground and rang their doorbells. Whenever there was not a bell, she would knock, and he would join in.
The toddler would ask to be lifted up to ring the bells, but he was just as content to merely knock. “Knock, knock. Anybody home?” he sang.
Being a weekday afternoon, most residents were out. She spoke with whoever opened a door, and to them she would recount what had happened, emphasizing the property management’s inaction and asking for any clues about the criminal acts. A couple of residents from different floors, both senior ladies, let them into their suites. They insisted the woman should have a cup of tea and they even offered fruits and pastries to the little one.
“Someone threw a glass bottle of tea. Threw to the street,” the toddler said when he saw the second old lady pouring tea into a vintage teacup for the woman.
“Really? That’s bad. Don’t do that at home.”
“Yeah. Mama said those staff are rubbish.”
“Yes, I was telling him about our property management,” explained the woman to the old lady, blushing because of her toddler’s frank disclosure.
* * *
On second thought, she decides she should not have parked his bike by the wall next to the feng-shui water wheel. She should have just let her toddler ride his bike into Tower Five’s lobby. Because of the safety policy, the security guard would not have allowed biking inside the lobby or into an elevator. Nevertheless, she should not have made her toddler nervous about being separated from his bike. She can hear him asking incessantly, “Mama, would goh-goh and jeh-jeh take my bike?”
She thinks perhaps she would have spoken to the perpetrator that day – if she really had gone to Tower Five to knock on every door of the suites facing the playground. Perhaps the perpetrator would also have invited her and her toddler in for tea and refreshments. Perhaps he would even have raised his hand to slap palms with her toddler if the little one requested a high five.
Other times, she thinks perhaps she could have hunted down the perpetrator by herself, not having to rely on any authorities, or that she could have told her story to the world about a potential threat to children living in the city without involving the media.
But most of the time, she imagines her toddler has never been hit by the glass bottle, and he still just wants to ride his bicycle.