Inspired by the illustrated books by Taiwanese writer/artist Jimmy Liao. Hopefully this can be read in an equally mellow mood. Enjoy.

Mannequin


The final bell on Monday rings, and the little boy springs up from his seat. Reaching into his bag to fish out his baseball cap, he prances out of the classroom and puts it on — flap turned backwards — his unzipped schoolbag bouncing against his back.

He will have to hurry: his father will be fetching him soon, and he doesn't want to waste too much time.

The rubber soles of his shoes make squeaky sounds against the asphalt as he breaks into a run, his sand-coloured hair ruffling from under the flap. Out to the pavement by the main road, round a corner, down the short alley, out into another street, and along the seemingly endless row of fashion boutiques. He counts his way, store by store, gazing into the display windows as he does so.

And he stops, by window number nine. He peers in eagerly at the unmoving figure behind the spotless sheet of glass. Today she is dressed in a lovely peasant top of a soft lilac, with little spiral shells strung onto thick threads around the hems, and a cream-coloured crushed silk skirt. The ovals of amethyst and opal hanging around her neck gleam, scratchless, in the coloured hues of the small spotlights. Her misty dark blue eyes seem to twinkle, and her painted lips are still chipped of the red, at the corner.

The little boy's copper-coloured eyes widen in pleasant surprise and absolute fascination. He places his palms very softly on the glass, as if afraid to leave any prints of it. His breaths come out light and fast as he breaks into an otherworldly smile — one visible only on the face of a young, innocent child.

She's getting more and more beautiful by the week, he thinks pensively.

"Kite!"

He removes his hands from the cool, hard surface with an even wider smile. He will come back tomorrow for more details of the clothing.

"There you are! I was just out for a little shopping and thought I could fetch you from school on the way . . ."

"No, Mrs Fontaine. You're just worried that I can't cross the roads by myself."

She laughs, her recent wrinkles disappearing. "Partly because of that. That's smart of you, dear. Now let's go back . . ."

And as his feet falls alongside his neighbour's he glances back at the stationary lady in the window, his gaze lingering on until the afternoon sun reflects a flash of light on the glass, and he can see her no more.

– – –

Every morning, the little boy's father will bring him to school, and drive him past the row of classy stores along the way. Upon reaching the school gate his father will kiss him goodbye with a loving smile, and then leave for work.

Kite is an attentive and bright student, and concentrates well in class, although he does looks forward more every day to exploring the glittery boutiques after school. One will find it easy to spot a young boy barely the height of the store counters, drifting in and out of different boutiques with their different themes, as he runs his hands along the forever silky material of the pieces of clothing on the racks.

Usually, his sharp eyes are able to pick out any new arrivals for the week. At times, it is a series of costly cashmere shawls in all the colours of the spectrum, and he simply drapes each around his neck, letting the soft ends fall and touch his back gently, while taking care not to leave any creases. At other times there are men's garments, every detail exquisitely displayed, down to the colourful cufflinks. Though he does not try them on, he still poses before the full-length mirror, trying out the effect with a simple pose as he feels the material delicately with his fingers.

Sometimes, for a change, he picks out dangling crystal earrings and hooks the sharp ends on his red cap flap while he wears it the right way. He will smile through the pair of accessories and shake his head, listening to the pleasing jangles of metal against gem before they fall onto the floor. The salespeople forgive him easily: the crystals are hard, his smile is pure, and he remembers to put the fancy accessories right where they had been.

But his favourite pastime is still to gaze at the wooden painted mannequin in the ninth window, watching the long brown tresses around her angelic face as she smiles on for eternity. He does not know why he likes this dressmaker's dummy so much; he cannot explain it. But he, just by standing outside this boutique, feels safe and protected, as if under a bubble charm enclosing the frozen lady and him, with the glass panel slicing the air between them.

"Can you move?" he asked once, quite innocently. The painted lips did not curl up at the corners; the eyes did not blink in reply. He waited for an answer, and it never came.

And he goes back daily, hoping the mannequin will talk to him one day.

– – –

On one Thursday in May lessons end half an hour earlier, and the little boy again makes his way down the alleyway, till he sees the familiar street sign Futerin Avenue on the dirty-bronze post, bright and somewhat assuring in its own way.

It has just stopped raining, and the sky casts a dark shadow over everything and everyone out without shelter, making the day seem like the moment right after twilight.

The little boy tugs hesitantly at his long sleeves, breathing faintly visible mists into the air. He hasn't seen the figure that entire week at all: Mrs Fontaine had waited for him by the school gate, and pulled him off back home, by a shorter route near the back doors of the stores.

He stares at the alluring lights pouring out from the display windows, and automatically, his feet brings him to the ninth window, the soles of his shoes squeaking in unison with his footsteps. And he gasps lightly.

He has almost forgotten what special occasion is coming up next, for there is a flourish of purple and pink all around his favourite mannequin: carnations, roses and sunflowers, forming a blanket around her shoeless ankles. Inside the glass window she wears a simple sleeveless blouse of pale pink and a maroon pleated skirt, flowing down to her knees. From her hip dangles a slim silver chain, sparkling with pink diamonds, and a white carnation corsage is on her wrist. Holding a single stalk of flower in her hand, she smiles perpetually at the boy as he stares on.

The single transparent sign on the other side of the glass simply reads:

Summer/Autumn Mothers' Day Collection

The coloured lights are dancing now, twinkling and glittering with every movement Kite makes. The mannequin looks surreal, beckoning him close with that same smile, the chapped lip revealing the white paint underneath.

And quite suddenly the light beams close in, gradually, and the boy feels the pane of glass fade away together with the cold of the after-rain weather. He blinks, and sees the mannequin smiling even more tenderly this time, revealing her pearly whites for the first time.

"Hello, Kite." She seems to be speaking to him through a metal tube, her gentle voice echoing and distant, yet at the same time hauntingly familiar.

He blinks once more, and remembers, with a slight pang of sadness.

Where have you gone, Mother? I miss you.

The mannequin — lady — bends her knees forward and touches his wispy sand-coloured hair tucking out from under his red cap.

"I have always been here, Kite, and you've been looking at me almost every day."

The little boy watches quietly as the woman hands him the red sunflower in her hand, her beautiful gleaming curls catching the pale light in the indistinct background beyond the field of flowers. His small fingers close around the fresh green stem, and he whispers a reply.

Happy Mothers' Day.

The mannequin, now charmed alive, kneels before him and touches his face, lightly, with her fingers.

And she smiles.

The lights fade; he feels a tinge of coolness, and is outside the display window again, the bustle and rustle of the adults behind him, passing by without even noticing the entranced child, with his face illuminated by soft pink light. In the distance Kite notices Mrs Fontaine's hurrying figure down the row of boutiques.

Absently, he twirls the flower in his hand. The mannequin is no longer kneeling, and back to her original position. But the smile has changed, he senses, and her hand is empty.

The light dances in his copper-coloured eyes, and he understands.

And he returns her his own smile.

-fin-