Living, breathing history

By Belinda Ng
By Belinda Ng |

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This is the second finalist in Young Post's 2015 Summer Story competition in which some marvellous books are up for grabs. Each week, we will publish one of the finalists' stories, with the winning entry appearing in Young Post on August 29

The edge of my frayed page fluttered as a breeze swirled through the dark alley. Thanks to years of wind and rain, my sodden grey body had lost its sharp, black headlines and the smell of freshly printed newspaper. 

Since I had been blown into the alley on that fateful day years ago, I had been deprived of sunlight, trapped in this sorry state indefinitely.

Of course, now people weren't eagerly rushing to the shop every morning to buy me - a far cry from all my fame and glory back then. In the 1940s, I, the Hong Kong Daily Press newspaper, was the ultimate messenger for the city; people would rush to scan my pages for any news on the ongoing war. 

Life as I knew it changed on December 8, 1941. I watched the world and the people I had grown to love crumble under new powers. I was discarded and flung into the wind as my readers ran for cover. The breeze had carried me to my final resting place, here in this alley. 

Suddenly, I sensed footsteps. I was ecstatic. It was a young girl who looked like she was about 14 years old. She hurried down the alley, and I noticed that her eyes were all red, as though she had been crying. What had happened? 

"Hello. What brings you down here?"

 Like my pages, my voice was rusty because I hadn't used it in a long time. 

She stopped abruptly, frantically looking around for the source of the voice. 

"I'm down here!" I fluttered my soaked pages as much as possible. 

She looked down at me, before gasping, "Who ... w-w-what are you?" 

"Nice to meet you, I'm the Hong Kong Daily Press. You might have heard of me. I was the newspaper for everyone in Hong Kong until 1941. What's your name?" 

I guess my response was perhaps a little too enthusiastic; her eyes had opened so wide I was afraid her eyeballs would fall out. 

"You are a newspaper that can talk?" she said incredulously.

"Yeah, that's right. Haven't you seen one before? All newspapers can talk - we were designed to be both audio and visual messengers." 

Her mouth opened and closed like a fish. "My ... my name is Sophie, and no ... are you real?" 

She bent down and gently lifted me up, flabbergasted. 

"So ... now that we have got past the introductions, pray tell me, what brings you down this alley?" I asked curiously. 

Sophie's shoulders drooped a little, before she said: "I can't believe I'm talking to a newspaper. What's even stranger is that I feel like I can trust you, for some inexplicable reason." She sniffed before continuing. "It has been a year since my dad died in an accident. And times are tough, you know? My mum is working overtime to pay my school fees." As she said that, another tear rolled down her cheek.

It was hard not to feel sorry for her.

"Sophie, please don't cry. I have seen so much in my life, but you know what? I've learned that human faith can overcome all of life's obstacles." 

Sophie frowned dubiously, and her shoulders sagged even more. I decided I needed to do something drastic. Something that I hadn't done in a very long time. I wasn't sure my weakened body was up to the task, but looking at Sophie, I thought she needed it.

"Close your eyes. I want to take you on a journey," I instructed her. It had been many years since I had done this. 

"Hold on, what jour ..." 

"Trust me, please. Can you take me out into the sunlight?" I said. 

She sighed before obeying, taking me out of the alley and closing her eyes.

In the warm sunlight, my blurred headlines lit up again. I could feel the energy right at the tips of my pages, and I fluttered them with all my might and took her back to the day everything changed ... 

The streets beside Victoria Harbour were chaotic; people were running in all directions and shouting at each other. Clutching me, Sophie looked around in panic. 

"What is happening? Where are we?" 

"Can't ... breathe ..." I almost choked. In her panic, Sophie had gripped me tightly, crushing all of my pages. She hurriedly released me. 

"December 8, 1941. You are in the midst of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong." 

I said it with as much calm as was possible considering the stampede of screaming people. Admittedly, it was hard to remain calm when everyone else was hysterical. 

"What!" Sophie shouted. "Why on earth did you bring me here?!"

"Sophie, there is someone I want you to meet ..." 

An ear-splitting sound erupted behind me, followed by a torrent of wails and cries. It was another bomb. 

"Quick, Sophie, run!"

Sophie didn't need to be told twice; joining the crowd of people running in all directions, we dashed through the dust-clogged air; the sound of debris crashing down was as loud as Sophie's heart thumping in her chest. 

"Head towards the main street, and don't stop running until we are out of this area," I shouted. She obeyed. 

Watching the world I had once known like the back of my page, it was a bittersweet reunion. But what could I have done? I was only a newspaper, and words were never meant to be weapons. 

Sophie skidded to a halt as she rounded the corner, only for a large chunk of a building to crash just metres away from her. Gasping, she backed away. But before she could get very far, something grabbed at her wrist, pulling us towards the ground. 

Looking down, there was a small door opening, and someone grabbed Sophie's hand. Sophie screamed, frantically trying to free herself from the unknown grip. But then a voice came from within.

"Quick! Come here! They are coming!"

It was the shrill voice of a young girl, full of apprehension. Trusting her instincts, Sophie went through the trapdoor. 

Inside, it was musky and damp, and it was only when the girl lit a small oil lamp that we truly got a sense of our surroundings. 

"He ... hello," Sophie said hesitantly, "thank you for saving our ... my life." It would have been awfully confusing if she had said "our", meaning herself and a newspaper. 

The girl nodded, before speaking quietly and solemnly. "It's fine. This cellar will be able to protect us when the soldiers come and take anyone still outside prisoner." 

Sophie stiffened at that thought. 

As we settled down for who knows how long in the smothering darkness, the screams outside did nothing to calm the rapidly rising panic. 

Following a brief awkward silence, Sophie decided to speak. 

"What is your name? Sophie asked. 

 "My name is Annie." 

Her big round eyes seemed so young and innocent, but she had an air of maturity about her; a young girl forced to grow up too soon. 

"How did you find this cellar?" Sophie said. 

We both flinched as another shockwave from a bomb hit the cellar, and dirt fell from the ceiling. 

"My dad built this last year. I think he knew the troops were coming ... but I found it myself when I was running from the bombs; he never got to tell me about it. He ... he never came back one day." At that moment, she faltered before a single tear slid down her cheek. "I've tried so hard to take care of my little brother and sister, and my mother who has been ill for months now. But it's so difficult ..." 

There was a sudden rapid banging on the cellar door. 

I felt Sophie's heart stop. 

With her breath caught in her lungs, Annie shakily got to her feet, her eyes glued to the door. 

But before she could do anything, the door burst open and a shadow entered our safe haven. 

To our great relief, it was not a solider. It was a young boy. He was barefoot, and wearing a T-shirt covered in soot. He then realised he was not alone, and slowly turned around to face us. 

It was Annie who broke the silence. 

"Who are you?"

I felt Sophie's rigid body as he came forward. She was looking at the boy with a furrowed brow. Perhaps I imagined it, but I thought I saw a spark of recognition in her eyes. Nevertheless, she stayed silent. 

"My name is Jimmy. I'm sorry for barging in like this, but I was chased by two soldiers and needed a place to hide." 

Sophie had moved to stand next to Annie, just as the cellar roof trembled once more. 

Suddenly, guards started shouting outside, and all three of them fell silent. After a few minutes, the voices faded and Jimmy breathed a sigh of relief.

"They're gone. Thank you both for protecting me," he said.

"Annie, I don't think we should stay here. We were lucky it was just a boy, but what if the soldiers really do come here and capture us?" said Sophie. 

Jimmy's eyes shone with fierce determination in the dim lamplight. "I owe you two everything. I swear I will help you two get out of here."

"How do you propose to do that?" Sophie asked hesitantly. 

"I will lift the door a little to check the area. When you receive the signal that it's clear, run to the right. I was told there's a safe house set up by our army three streets away from here. Whatever you do, do NOT stop running." 

Jimmy's face was solemn enough to send shivers down my page. 

He was already climbing towards the broken door as he spoke, as everyone else waited anxiously. 

Soon, we were all out in the open and began to run for our lives. 

The streets were desolate, just like the calm after a storm, and although Sophie's legs were quaking with fear, she kept running; there were eyes everywhere. 

"HALT!" The voice of our worst nightmare slashed through the silence. They had seen us. 

Annie screamed as she was suddenly grabbed by one of the soldiers just metres behind Sophie. I could see how tormented Sophie was, and how tempted she was to turn back. 

Glancing back, Sophie saw that Annie lay motionless on the ground, and ran even faster.

"Keep running! I'll save her!" Jimmy cried out.

My last glimpse was of Annie's limp body; Jimmy standing protectively over her while facing three soldiers.

Sophie's feet were scrambling over rubble when the world suddenly blurred and faded into darkness.

Sophie was still calling Annie and Jimmy's names as she found herself in the dark alley where we had first met.

"Why ... why did you take me there?" she choked. I bit back a cry as she threw me on the ground angrily. 

"Now they have been captured, or worse, they're dead!" 

"Sophie, please, I wanted you to understand that it is possible to face the challenges life throws at you, and survive them." 

But in her anger, Sophie gave me the silent treatment all the way home. 

As she trudged into the living room, she suddenly stopped. Because there, on the mantelpiece, was a picture of Jimmy. 

She had always known him as James, but suddenly everything clicked. "D ... dad?" Sophie's voice trembled. Tears streamed down her face, as she realised who her saviour was. It was her own father when he was her age.