Finders Keeprs (1)
Harry Chen looked like a middle-aged teacher. He always wore a tie and an old cotton jacket, even in the hot sun. His hair was going thin and he did not stand up straight. He was fifty years old and for the past twenty years had been a lecturer in archaeology at a university in Singapore.
He was also a thief.
His great love in life had always been archaeology. He loved to see things that had been hidden from human sight for hundreds, even thousands, of years. He loved the feeling of excitement he got when he held a piece of history in his hands. But his special love was pottery, the older the better.
Sometimes the university sent him to places where old pottery had been discovered. It was his job to sort out these things. The university would then put the things that were interesting in a museum where they could be shown to the public. But Harry Chen had his own private museum that nobody else knew about. He hated the idea of not keeping some of the old and, sometimes, beautiful things he found. And, if those beautiful things were only small things that nobody but he had seen, who would ever know if they were gone? So he kept them.
He had quite a collection of stolen things now, all carefully hidden in his home. They were mostly small, broken things that were not of much value. Even so, he did have some pots, rings and other favourite things that were extraordinary and lovely to see. He loved them so much he would sometimes, during the warm evenings, lay them all out on the floor to look at. He would examine each piece with love and care. Only he, he was sure, could understand their true value.
He lived alone in an old house which looked over the Singapore River. It was close to the antique shops which sold die old things he loved. He would often look in the shop windows at the beautiful things he could not afford to buy. Not on his salary. It made him angry to think that such things would end up in the home "f some fat tourist who could not possibly see their true value as he could.
It wasn't fair.
Harry was looking forward to today. A very large old grave had been discovered while some forest land was being clared. The university had been given the job of examining the grave and the things inside it. The grave was inside a big stone room which seemed to have been built for it.
'It's all a bit of a mystery so far, Harry,' said Professor Teo, Harry's head of department. 'The grave seems to be older than anything we'd expect to find on the island. It's definitely Chinese but I can't imagine whose grave it is.'
Harry was extremely interested. Perhaps there would be something for him to add to his collection.
'What would you like me to look at, Professor Teo?' asked Harry.
'Well, Harry,' answered the Professor, 'there's a few old bits - pots, vases and such like - which were found close to the body. They seem to be important but we aren't sure why yet. Perhaps you could see what you can find out.'
'No problem, Professor,' said Harry. 'I'll look into it.'
Soon the old pots were in Harry's room at the university and he was left alone to examine them. He loved this part of his work best of all.
He could see almost immediately that the pots were ancient. After carefully cleaning them he could see that most of them had contained perfumes and other valuable materials which were suitable for the grave of an important person. All of these things had long since lost their smell. Everything about them was dry, old and dead: there was nothing that made any of the pots different from hundreds of pots he had seen before. Harry was disappointed. There was nothing worth taking. Nothing. He decided to clear up.
As Harry turned, he did something he had never done before - he knocked over one of the pots and broke it. He was annoyed with himself for being so careless and bent down to pick up the pieces.
The pot had been very plain and tightly shut up. All of the other pots had open tops. But not this one. Now that it was broken he could see that there had been something inside. It was a small, thin pipe about the length of his little finger. It was made of clay - the same stuff as the pots. He picked it up. It looked like a musical instrument, some kind of whistle for a child to blow into, perhaps? It might have some interest.
Harry decided the whistle would be worth taking home to look at. He put it into the pocket of his cotton jacket.
He told his professor about the broken pot but not about his whistle. He already thought about it as being his whistle.
'That's too bad,' said Professor Teo, 'but I don't suppose it was of much importance. What did you make of it, Harry?'
'Just an ordinary, plain pot,' said Harry. 'Nothing special. I can put it back together again but, really, it's no great loss. I can keep the pieces for you, if you like.'
The professor nodded. 'Yes, do that, Harry. We've been finding out a few things about the man whose grave it was. He appears to have been some kind of priest or medicineman. It seems a bit odd that his grave was so hidden. I wonder why?'
On his way home, Harry forgot about the clay whistle in his pocket. He stopped for a coffee in a noisy shopping centre. As he searched his pockets for money, he felt the whistle in his pocket. When he had sat at his table he took it out to look at. It was still dirty. He gently cleared away t he dirt. There was something written on the whistle. The marks looked like writing. He looked more closely and recognised some old Chinese writing. There was very little of it. All it said was: BE STILL.
Be still? How extraordinary. What did it mean? He looked at the whistle again. It was the kind that one blew from .the top, like a football whistle. He wondered if it would still work. The thought came into his mind that he wanted to blow it. He wanted to very much. The whistle had not been blown since it had been placed in the pot all those years before. He would blow it. It was small - it would not make much noise. Nobody would notice. So he put it to his mouth and blew.
To his surprise, the whistle gave a thin, clear note that was louder than he expected.
Then there was silence. Complete silence.
Harry noticed something else, too. Everything was still. Nothing was moving. No noise, no movement.
People who had been walking were frozen in mid-step, like statues. They were as still as photographs.
But they weren't photographs. They were real people. Frozen people. Harry's eyes opened wide with surprise. He couldn't believe it. This should not be happening.
But it was. He looked around and saw frozen smiles, frozen steps, a fly frozen in flight, a ball thrown by a child which lay frozen above the hand which was waiting to catch it.
And all the while a total, perfect silence.
Harry sat down again. He could hardly think. How could he make sense of this? This had happened after he had blown the whistle. Had the whistle done this? What would happen if he blew it again? He certainly didn't want things to remain as they were!
He blew the whistle again. Once again it gave its thin, clear note.
All at once the normal world returned. Normal sounds, normal movement. The fly flew, the ball was caught, people laughed and talked.
It was as if nothing had happened.
Harry was shaken. He put the whistle in his pocket. He would have to think about this. He would have to think hard.
But by the time Harry had got home he had somehow persuaded himself that he had imagined everything. He felt better after a good supper and some TV. It had all been a waking dream. He was tired, that's all. He just needed a good night's sleep.
And so he slept. But his sleep was troubled and his dreams were full of shadows.
Harry went back to work the next day. He found nothing interesting. That's what he told Professor Teo.
Are you certain, Harry?' asked the professor. 'Whoever buried this man was afraid of him, that's for sure. His body was covered in pieces of paper with words on them. Words which were meant to keep harm away. Strange.'
Harry thought about the whistle. It was still in his pocket.
'I'm certain, Professor,' said Harry. 'I found nothing unusual. Nothing at all.'
Harry didn't drive. He usually got the bus home but sometimes he liked to walk. That evening he walked. He liked to look at the shops in Orchard Road - one of Singapore's busiest shopping areas. There were antique shops which sold beautiful old pots, maps and other things that his heart was hungry for. But he could not afford them. Not on his salary.
His favourite shop sold the most expensive things. He liked the small, beautifully made figures made from apple-green jade stone. They cost a lot of money but he liked to look. Sometimes he would ask if he could examine a piece, as if he were going to buy one of them. Of course, he never did. But he loved the feel of the costly jade in his hands.
He found himself in the shop again. It was full of the things that he, as an archaeologist, truly cared for. Yet they would be sold to empty-headed tourists who had no idea of their real value or beauty. It wasn't fair.
Without thinking, he took out the whistle and blew it. He hadn't planned to - it just seemed a natural thing to do.
And then there was silence. All was still.
Harry felt afraid but excited. So it had not been a dream! It had happened!
He saw the shopkeeper standing with his mouth open, looking stupid. A customer was pointing something out, his finger stuck in the air. None of them moved.
Harry decided he would look at some jade while they were all still. He took his favourite piece from the shop - a small jade dragon. It was very old and beautifully made. It was lovely. Why shouldn't he have it?
The thought at first alarmed him. This was not the same as taking things from the university. Nobody even noticed if he took anything there. Here he would be stealing, just like any thief.
He looked around at the frozen world. This was surely meant to be. The whistle had come to him. He should use it. Why not? It was only right. It was far better that such beauty should go to him rather than stupid people with more money than sense. It was only fair.
But he would have to do it right. If he was the last one to be seen with the jade dragon he would be looked for once it had gone. He blew the whistle and the world moved again. He waited for a while, then went to the shopkeeper and asked to see it.
'It's a fine piece of work, sir,' the shopkeeper told him. 'And only twenty thousand dollars.'
'It is lovely,' said Harry as he held it in his hands. He wanted it. He would have it. But he made a point of handing it back so that other customers - and the video cameras set up in the shop - could see him do it. 'Thanks for letting me look but I'm afraid that's all I can afford to do just now,' he said to die shopkeeper.