Rents in this town were a disaster. Lee supplemented her call centre work with a side gig blogging about food, and still barely managed to afford one room in a concrete block squashed between a ramshackle temple and a bicycle repair shop.
Her room held a futon, a shelf for her cooking ring, a little sink, and a shower and toilet sharing the same coffin-sized space. She blogged from her bed, balancing the steaming bowl of ramen on her knees, live-streaming her mealtimes and offering commentary afterwards.
In the background of her videos, her possessions dangled from hooks—clothes, pans, the small broom she used to sweep ginkgo leaves from the floor. In strong winds, the old temple trees flung their yellow autumn leaves right under the door and into her room.
Lee’s grandmother had a house across town. It wasn’t large, but it stood in its own garden, a traditional house, with a swooping roof and latticed partitions and so much space. Lee would create a dedicated blogging room, another whole room just for sleep, and have a shower without needing to lean away from the toilet.
—When her grandmother finally died, that was.
“We owe kindness this house,” said her grandmother. “Times were hard and we had so little, so little.” She smiled, her eyes crinkling like leaves. “But there was kindness too.”
“A rich man gave it to you,” said Lee. “It was luck.”
“What else would it be?”
“Luck is kindness.”
Lee snorted, although she raised her hand to hide this disrespect from her grandmother.
“We knew him from the temple. He went at the same times we did. Like your grandfather, he worked, every waking hour. I took care of his children and my own, for years. And when his promotion finally came through, he gave us this old house in thanks.”
“He had been treated with kindness himself in his youth. He was passing on goodwill.”
Her grandmother fixed Lee with a bold gaze. “Be kind and you will see how it works.”
“When I’m at work every minute! Who has time for that? Times are different now.”
“Kindness does not change.”
Conversations with her grandmother were always so difficult. Lee cast about. The polished wood around the door frames gleamed in the late autumn sun. Outside, fan-shaped leaves piled up in little heaps in the corners of the courtyard. “Don’t you find this place too big to manage on your own?”
“I miss your grandfather every day …”
That was not what Lee had meant and they both knew it. Lee accepted some tea, and carried the dirty cups back into her grandmother’s kitchen and put them in the sink.
It was tiresome how long old people lived here days. They worked, they rested, and got their reward, a free house—and then they just kept on living. What was the point? Her grandmother didn’t go anywhere, saw nobody except Lee, and what thrill could she possibly be wringing from that, at her age, ninety-something. Surely she couldn’t be happy.
“You’d do better with others your own age,” Lee said when she visited next.
“Not many of us left. I would like to visit the temple, though. You might take me.”
“I’m so busy with work.”
Lee took a brochure from her satchel. “Look. This is a place where elderly people live all together. There are balconies on the rooms, look. And there is a temple nearby.”
“I could … look after this house.”
“Oh no. You would not have time. I would sell it.”
Her grandmother turned over the brochure’s pages. Her twisted hands were blue and green with age—veins running over and under each other, a map of a long life. “Perhaps it is time to move. But would you visit me, Lee?”
“You would have time for that?”
“I worry about leaving this house. I feel things, you know. The house, it shudders, it speaks to me.”
“Of course I would visit you. And, and, if you wanted to sell it, I would find you an agent, arrange everything. If you let me act as your broker, I can sort it all out.” A speaking house. Crazy old girl.
“I will feel better in a modern block? Hmmn. Perhaps I will. The house, its voices … its noises. Perhaps it is time.”
“That’s the spirit.”
It took a while to settle the old woman into her new place. But soon the move was done—only a small move, since the new apartment had so little room and Lee the broker wanted as much furniture as possible for herself.
“These walls are silent,” said her grandmother. She knocked on the concrete partition. “Much better. Thank you, Lee.”
“And when the house is sold, you’ll tell me who bought it?”
“Of course,” said Lee.
“I want to pass them on a message. About kindness.”
“Kindness, yes. Important!”
Lee kissed her grandmother goodbye and caught a taxi—the height of luxury, to reflect her new owner-occupier status—across town to the old house. On the way, she dreamed. No more looking out at the ratty old temple. No more blogging with a bowl wobbling on her knees. No more stupid ginkgo leaves. She had done her grandmother a huge favour and in return, although she did not know it, her grandmother had passed on the luck—a free house.
Eventually, she would have to confess that the house had not been sold. She would apologise, and wait for her grandmother to offer to let Lee live there. Meanwhile, the elderly apartment was not very expensive, and after all these years of free rent, her grandmother could certainly afford it.
The taxi rustled through the streets, its wheels hissing in the rain. It slid past the old temple, the place where kindness had started. Or luck, to be more precise. Lee smiled. She had finally gained a little of that luck.
Here was the turn. Here at last was the street—but it was closed off, behind a row of orange plastic barriers. There were sirens, and police. Lee scrambled from the taxi, her laptop under her arm, and found a crowd of chattering neighbours. She couldn’t see the house.
She pushed her way through the crowd, yelling at the nosy onlookers, her hair straggling in the rain. “No-”
“Is this your house?” asked the policeman guarding the barrier.
“Yes.” Lee’s mouth was dry, as if someone had stuffed raw noodle into her throat and left her there.
“It was a sinkhole,” the policeman said. “Opened up this morning. Swallowed the whole place. You’re lucky.”
“Lucky?” Lee stared at the pit where her grandmother’s house had been. You could see layers—the road surface, a chunk of rocks with water pipes and cables sticking out, and then a black nothing.
“Of course.” He stared at her. “You weren’t at home.” He shook his head. “Usually there are clues. Weird sounds, the ground shakes—a few signs that you need to call the building inspectors. Did you notice anything, before this morning?”
“I …” The house speaks to me. “Aah!”
“Well, there’s not much to say.” The policeman shrugged. “Luck is luck, right?”
Lee stumbled along the street. Her taxi had gone. So had her apartment—she’d left that morning in anticipation of streaming her next blog from her new home.
She passed a beggar woman with an empty bowl. Raindrops trickled over the woman’s ancient cheeks. She’d been sitting there so long that ginkgo leaves were collecting against her ankles. It made the old woman look tatty and untidy, in this dignified street. Lee stepped over the woman’s stick-like legs, dodging the soft call for coins.
Lee sighed. What was she going to do now? —Turn up to work, work her shift, find someone’s floor to sleep on, if she was lucky.
Luck is kindness.
Lee stopped. She turned back to the beggar woman. “Wait—”