Those few months felt like the toughest moments in his life. Thinking back about it sitting in his office chair, it was remarkable that he could have made it so far. Every day felt like a fight to survive, dealing with unresolved emotions, deep-seated regrets, crumbling grades. Surrounding all that was a disastrous family situation; there was shouting within the walls of his home on a daily basis, and the terrible prospect of having less than enough to survive on scared him.
He felt like he just fallen into a hole on an otherwise normal day, and now he was stuck. His screams for help wouldn’t reach anyone outside, and before long even he couldn’t hear the sound of his own voice. He spent nights lying in bed, crying himself to sleep after chucking his books aside. It reminded him of the times back in Secondary Two when he would jerk awake with tears in his eyes and a back full of sweat. Back then, those were tears of fear. The tears he wept now, however, were tears of resignation and pity. The same liquid, but served for a different occasion. The dull ache he felt in his chest didn’t go away, all the way to the start of his ‘A’ Levels. It rendered him senseless and everything he thought was certain melted away like an ice cube sliding across searing asphalt.
He thought about what happened exactly one year ago. He had already enlisted and took time out of camp to receive his ‘A’ Level results.
“Eh bro how’s the results?” Came a text from one of his friends from exactly one year back.
“Bad” was his reply.
“Bad? You mean below expectations bad, or like really bad?”
There was a long wait for the next reply. “Like, really bad.”
“Oh.” Replied the friend. And it was the end of that conversation. There was nothing more to say. The sum off all the hardships he had faced in the final year had taken a toll on him, and this was the inevitable end result. He trudged back to camp, defeated.
He didn’t reply any more texts and inquiries about his results, and people could guess as much; it wasn’t good. He could hear the voices even before they reached him. This guy tried so hard but still met his fate. I can’t say I’m not surprised, said one. The juniors that looked up to him all these years need to find a new role model lah. This one at the start show potential only, but can’t even seal the deal at the end, came another voice, a higher-pitched one that he imagined to be that of his secondary school teacher. You have your place. I told you so. I was right, wasn’t I? Now go find your place. And oh yes, one more thing: stop trying already, ok?
All this while, the whistles continued blowing, and the sun pricked his scalp where his hair had just been shaved off. Enlisting proved to be a good distraction, and any negative thoughts were wrung out of his body due to sheer exhaustion. It taught him one thing, that life was going to move on whether he liked it or not, whether he scored straight A’s or straight E’s. Life was going to continue the same way the ghosts kept reviving in Pac man, it was just up to him to continue swallowing the dots.
Due to his injuries sustained during rugby, he was deemed unfit for combat and hence after his basic training was posted as a clerk. The posting itself was fortunate, but the location of his camp made it all the better for it was only a ten minute bicycle ride from his home. It was a rare stroke of good fortune in an otherwise turbulent existence the last few months.
And so it was, about ten months ago, he was sitting on the very same chair, twirling his pen expertly around the knuckle of his index finger when a colleague accidentally swept his entire cup of coffee onto the rug. The mug bounced once as if in slow motion, before it tipped and unloaded its entire contents onto the fabric. He immediately leaped over to help clean up the mess, grabbing a box of tissues and getting on his knees. As the wad of tissues in his hand soaked up the dark brown coffee, a sudden, virtually irrelevant thought came to his mind.
I am going to retake my ‘A’ Levels.
Just like that, as he was cleaning up the coffee, he knew he had to do it. There was no reason for him to suddenly think this way, but made perfect sense at that moment; the time he had, the ease of transport and most of all, the unresolved bitterness he held so close to him. It was going to be straightforward. He was going to do this.
“It’s not so straightforward,” advised one of his close friends a few days later. “I mean, I’m not trying to spoil your party here. I also know that a lot of teachers and classmates have told you so in the past that nothing good can come out of you trying this, but lets shove all that aside. Back then you had a classroom, a whiteboard and a living, breathing teacher to help you everyday. You had an environment of learning, in other words. They may have doubted you then but at least you had a decent shot at it in the past.”
The friend was speaking with unusual eloquence, and it scared him.
“But now all you have is a camp, a table and — I don’t know, some freakish willpower I have no idea where you dredge out from. I think it may be over for you. I wouldn’t be doing you any favours sugarcoating my words here, but the chance has come and gone. I don’t know, can you really do this? And the money it would cost you as well! Eight hundred dollars just to retake, without any financial reimbursement, no real reason why you’d fare any better as well…I don’t know about your sudden urge to retake man. I really don’t.”
He thought about it for a while, before a wry smile crossed his face. “Thanks for the opinion bro, but I think you’ve just given me all the reason I need to retake this paper.”
The friend was taken aback. “Wait. I’ve been trying to convince you NOT to retake man. I don’t quite see how you can find any reason to. Everything I said makes perfect sense. You have no reason to put yourself through it again. Your results can still get you a uni course. So why?”
He cleared his throat in defiance. “Why? The real question I’m going to have to ask myself is firstly, why not? And secondly, to what extent can I prove you wrong? Besides,perfect sense seems to be the last thing I need right now.”
His friend now looked up and smiled to himself, impressed.
“It’s funny, if you had encouraged me to retake I may have reconsidered the entire thing and backed out, but now that you’ve given me all the reasons not to, I guess all I have left to do is prove you wrong, do I not?”
* * *
The first problem in his quest to retake his exam was the prescient issue of money. There were many families out there who could easily fund the endeavors of their offspring, and truth be told, his wasn’t one of them. He scratched his head, thinking of where he could possibly get the cash.
He considered borrowing from his friends, and when he brought this issue up to his parents, his mother simply shrugged and told him he’d have to find the money himself, dad had lost his job and we cannot afford to fund any of your dreams. Dreams. Did his mother really consider this endeavor a mere dream?
The dateline for application was drawing near, and he had not a single cent.
This all changed during a hot tuesday afternoon, during a routine funds transfer. He queued patiently at the ATM machine, and when it was finally his turn he got a shock.
There was eight hundred dollars more in his account. He stood there for half a minute, staring at the figures. Whatever errands he had to run that day were soon forgotten.
Upon reaching home, he questioned his father about it. He was walking about the kitchen, tossing ingredients into the pan, where they mingled; sizzling wildly. His father wiped his sweat from his forehead. All he would tell him was this: “don’t tell your brother and sisters about this.”
He didn’t understand his meaning.
“But why? Wouldn’t this be hard on us?” He questioned.
“That isn’t the point.”
But that is the whole point!” He rebutted.
His father became stern, and a few years seemed to recede from his countenance. The pan was sizzling to the point of uncontrolled pops and crackles. How much oil did he add?
“Listen up. I don’t give a single damn about what you think about this, alright? If it is your dream to retake this exam, it is every father’s dying right to give his son that dream. This is my money, and you are my son.”
Father looked at son, frying pan in hand, ready to smack a baseball out of the park.
“You take that money, and make something of it, alright? I believe in you, son. I haven’t the means to show it and for all I know I may have been the lousiest parent, but God forbid I deny you this. You have an entire life ahead of you and it starts here. Now go.”
You have the entire pitch, and eighty minutes; now go.
His father returned to the pan, stirring the vegetables, a wizard over his cauldron. Leaving the kitchen, the son went to his room and closed the door.
In the dark, he clutched the wad of notes in his hand. His lower lip was trembling; his heart thumping fiercely. He had meant to return it to his father then and there, but he knew now, more than ever, the first thing he was going to do. He was going to make him proud.
* * *
And so started a whole new routine. The entire process was well thought out, painstakingly followed, and had no trace of his sloppy and distracted self from the previous year. He grabbed his bike in the morning, and the day would begin as follows:
He would cycle to work, wind playing with his emerging hair. The ride would take about ten minutes. When he was in his office, he would scramble to one corner and delve straight into his books, copying notes, solving math problems and physics equations. He would text his past teachers if he had burning questions, and some even offered to tutor him on his off days.
After work ended at six, he would cycle home. He spent a couple of hours scrubbing his own office attire and hanging it out to dry, wolfing down his home-cooked dinner and taking a quick shower. At about eight, he would get on his bike again, ride all the way to Novena Starbucks, and dig out his books and continue with a second round of revision.
He would read through his notes, memorize concepts, and focus on every last detail and idea that the notes seemed to be telling him. There were days where this revision would go smoothly and everything would flow into his head like clear water out of a jug. However, on some days, tiredness would creep in ever so unreasonably, and thoughts would not flow. His eyelids would shut as his resolve melted.
But he would always jolt awake. The images from the past, every failure, every last person that did not have faith in him waded in the waters of his conscience. He could not drown them out, and their triumphant cries kept him pinned to his books. He could not lose sight now.
On most days, he would study until three in the morning, cycle home, and collapse onto his bed at four.
He would be awake in four hours, and the cycle would start all over again.
Once, at work, a supervisor had a request.
“Eh, can help Roger and I move some of the boxes?”
He looked up from his desk, leaving the world of nuclear physics behind. “Yes, sure.”
They moved a few boxes, and it took longer than expected. After the entire job was done, the three men were exhausted. Those were some heavy boxes, was all he could think. “Yup, that’s it,” he announced. “Need anymore help?”
His supervisor merely stared at him and nodded, his lips pursed in heavy contemplation.
There was a short intermission of intense silence, before his supervisor broke the tension.
“So, you really think you can do this eh?” He began. “You really think you can just hide in your corner, and study all day, act blur as we all do work behind your back?” Clearly, somebody wasn’t happy with his participation (or lack thereof) in the workplace.
“Let me tell you something,” he continued. “You may be in an office environment, but don’t you dare think, for one minute, that you can do your own thing and pursue your own agenda. The guys here may be slackers, but at least they will be present and do what I tell them to do. How about you? Just studying there as if you own the whole place. Tell you what; this is not a tuition centre or a school, you understand? I want you to participate more in the office and not bury yourself in your books anymore.”
“What’s the problem here?” It was the head superintendent. He was a tall Indian man in his fifties with a flowing moustache. He had eavesdropped the entire time from his office. “If the boy wants to study, you let him study. I know you all are not happy about these two years. You think you guys are wasting your time, but look at him! He’s putting in an effort to improve himself, doing something with the time he has. There are more than enough people in this office to do the work required, and there are more than enough people who are willing two waste two years. This boy is not one of them, do you guys understand?”
The supervisor’s face began to turn red, as the head superintendent continued.
“Boy, I want you take all your books with you. I have a spare table in my office; I want you to move there. You are under me now. If I tell you to do work, you do work, and if not I want to see you studying.” He turned to the supervisor. “As for you, I don’t want any more nonsense from you, understand? He is my business now.”
Flushed as a tomato, the supervisor strained himself to an exaggerated nod.
In the next few months he spent in the head superintendent’s office, he couldn’t help but notice that he was not passed on as many errands in the course of the day as compared to his colleagues. He did his work diligently in the light of this and studied even harder with the pockets of times he had. He would always owe this privilege to his head superintendent.
As he cycled back from his late night studies at Starbucks, there would be a downhill path, and in the dead of night not a single car could be observed. He rode his bike down the hill, wind in his face and his back to the entire world. The song “Eye of the Tiger” played from his earphones, and as the bike sped relentlessly downward, his spirits lifted.
Now I’m back on my feet / Just a man, and his will to survive.
His will to survive, he would think. He closed his eyes as the bicycle completed the last leg of the downhill.
If a car hits me now and I die, I would die happy.
He opened his eyes as his bicycle came to an eventual stop in the middle of a main road. He was alive.
He looked down at his left fist, clasping hard on the handlebar. On his fist he had scribbled the word “BELIEVE” in capital letters, bravely imprinted as a constant reminder, and a symbol of his struggle. It was like his days in NT, where he would scribble new words he’d learnt onto his left fist. How far had he come since then, and how much meaning did that word hold in his entire journey? How much further did he have to go before he could prove something to himself?
Not much further now, whispered a small voice, you’re almost there.
He kicked the ground softly with his right foot, and cycled the rest of the journey home.
And so, five months passed like this. Waking up, studying at work, asking help from his teachers, studying at Starbucks, listening to Eye of the Tiger on repeat, then sleeping again. Cycling, studying, cycling, studying, cycling, Eye of the Tiger, sleep. Cycling, studying, cycling, studying, cycling, Eye of the Tiger, sleep. This went on and on until the day the ‘A’ Level examinations visited his life once again.
* * *
He packed his things and said a quick goodbye to his colleagues. It was time to go. Go where? He thought. To see my results…yes. He chuckled nervously to himself, before bumping into the head superintendent on the way out.
“So, how was it?” His voice was stern, as if at a wake.
“I haven’t seen the results yet, Sir,” he admitted. “I’m going to see with my friends.”
He nodded in acknowledgement. “You have nothing to be worried about, boy. I’ve seen the way you worked the last few months. Sometimes I wish my children could take a page from your book. To put you in my office was the best decision I’ve made in my time here, I’m sure of that. You will do well, boy.”
To that, he could only nod. He wished he had half of his superior’s faith.
The car came and picked him up from his house at eight. He could only manage a few spoonfuls of dinner even though he had missed his lunch, and stepped into the car feeling sick in the stomach. Three of his best friends were waiting inside.
One of them poked out his head from the front seat. “How’re you feeling? Scared ah?”
“A bit lah…” he replied. No shit, Sherlock.
They eventually decided to drive to Marina Barrage, and as the car moved along they discussed the possibilities.
“So what if the result is damn good? Have you thought of like what you’d do?”
“I don’t think it’d be good, but here’s to hoping something improved. I’ve worked my ass off for this,” he replied in complete honesty.
“And if it sucks?” Probed another friend.
“Let’s not discuss that possibility,” he shot back immediately. The car ride was filled with an irreplaceable silence for the rest of the journey.
The group of four got off the car, and slowly made their way up the slope. The barrage was designed as one huge upward spiral, the ground rising steadily and paved with a huge lawn of grass and a hefty sum of taxpayer’s money. There was a gentle breeze that night, and the air was cool. There was no suggestion of any latent struggles, no fleeting symbolisms to pave the way for what was about to happen. The wind just continued blowing, and the grass swaying happily in its wake.
The four of them got up to the top, and sat down on a concrete slab that rose casually from the lawn. “Ok, here goes…”
He whipped out his phone, and from his email, accessed the link to his portal.
He held his breath. They all held their breaths.
“Log in” read the webpage.
His heart was beating excessively fast, pumping blood to irrelevant parts of his body, but most of all supplying much needed oxygen to his brain. His thoughts were on overdrive. I forgot to stay signed in!
Hastily, he typed in his username and password.
There was a voice from the past. Very useless one you know! You will be useless! It was his teacher from primary school. From an obscure corner of his mind, she had come to grace the occasion as well. You abnormal one! What good can you do!
He pressed enter.
“Invalid user/password” read the page.
Stupid! You try so hard also like that! Also can’t do well when it counts. You know why or not? Because you didn’t want to join the cool kids when you had the chance. See what you are now? Some loser! Some loser, a nothing! It was Solomon’s voice this time. He too, had decided to pay him an unexpected visit. His words rang in his head. If he didn’t remember wrongly, he had a very loud and obnoxious voice.
“Why is the password wrong?” He scrambled for the keys and retyped the password. He was frantic now. “I’m quite sure I remembered correctly…”
“Calm down, just type slowly,” suggested one of his friends.
His words did not register. It was drowned out by yet another voice.
You have your place. I told you so. I told you all along. There is no place for you here. Excellence is not something that will grace this fleeting life of yours. I gave you the option to continue on the path that was meant for you and you said no. Look at yourself now. Look at what happens when an ignorant student decides to forgo his teacher’s advice. Just look.
He pressed enter. This time, the screen hanged.
“NO!” he shouted. He sat on the floor, feeling nothing but defeat. “The damn thing won’t bloody log in.”
His friends stood around, powerless.
The voices all spoke in unison now, and amalgamated to form a singular, more sinister voice. It was that of a scream. YOU’RE NOTHING…SUCH A LOSER….WHY DO YOU TRY SO HARD? WHY WHY WHY? WHY TRY WHEN THIS IS ALWAYS THE OUTCOME? THIS SAD SITUATION, WITH YOU SITTING ON THE FLOOR, DEFEATED AND FEELING SO EMPTY INSIDE? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO PROVE? WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? The scream rang in his head for the next few seconds.
And then, amongst the voices, there was one he recognized as his own. How did I get here?
The screen lit up.
“Mathematics (H2) ––––––––––– A
Physics (H2) –––––––––––– B
Chemistry (H2) ––––––––––––– B”
It took a while to register. The voices faded away. His mind was as hushed as a vacuum.
It was his friends that reacted first. There may have been screams, but he couldn’t quite remember now. There were definitely a few hands on his shoulders, hands that were pressing down hard in congratulations, yet all he could feel was a tremendous weight lifting from the deepest recesses of his chest.
When it all sank in, he ran, faster than his legs could take him, ran with the wind behind his back this time, trailing along. From the roof of Marina Barrage, a man shouted to the skies in triumph.
* * *
“Hello Son,” spoke his dad over the phone. “How did you do?”
“Hi Dad. I got A B B Dad. I got A for maths and B for Physics and Chem,” he announced proudly, barely able to breathe properly or contain himself.
There was a long pause over the line. He thought about his dad sitting by his side after his PSLE result. The more people tell you that you can’t, the more you have to prove to them that you can.
He thought of the money transferred into his account, his father holding the frying pan, his only defense against a world that had been so cruel to him, the immense faith he had in his son.
Gosh. How long ago was that?
“Wait… stop right there,” his father probed. “I’m not well versed about how this works so… is the result something we should be happy about?”
“Yes, Dad,” his voice was trembling and his cheeks were damp.
“It’s a brilliant result Dad. It’s absolutely brilliant.”
Here. This is where I am. It has been a long journey. My legs are tired, my muscles ache and my lungs hurt. I have been pushed around, made fun of, doubted over and over again. But I am here, and this is now. I am here, and this is where I belong. No one can take that away from me. It is my destiny, and I am exactly where I want to be.