This is an entry received as part of The Great Victorian Write Off. The following piece received the 3rd place award in the competition.
I’m sitting in a white room. In front of me is a desk made of oak wood, and on top of it a mug filled with black coffee, the rousing scent of caffeine bouncing off the whitewashed walls. I sit and wait. Not long after the door swings open and a pudgy man in a white collared shirt steps in, who takes a seat behind the desk. I can see the sweat stains on his underarms. He had brought a thick folder with him, and I can already guess it’s chock full of information about me. Typical. “Let’s begin,” he announces, with a voice that was so flat one would think he was reading off an eulogy. So I look up, and my eyes meet his. “Very well.”
“My name is Dr Lim, nice to meet you. What’s your name?”
“Mm, how old are you ah?”
“You know why you’re here?”
“I’ve been through this before- ask away.”
For a moment a flash of surprise appears on his face, and in the next it’s gone. Dr Lim relaxes, rubs his nose, and continues,
“Tell me about yourself.”
- I’m Just A Poor Boy And Nobody Loves Me
Ever since my first memories at the orphanage I never got to meet my parents- my real ones. It was always me and Mrs Wong, my caretaker. Mrs Wong would come running in with a juice box whenever I cried. Mrs Wong would prepare dinner for me and nine other kids by six-thirty sharp. Mrs Wong would patiently teach me whenever I got frustrated at Algebra. Mrs Wong would meet the principal whenever I got in trouble. In the orphanage we were split into what they called “playgroups”, each consisting of ten children so the caretakers could better manage us. I had the privilege of being placed in Group A, whose caretaker was extra patient with us, in contrast to the other playgroups where caretakers would scold children for the slightest of mistakes, like sneezing without covering their mouths. It wasn’t until much later, after a talk with my teacher, that I found out why Group A received such treatment. After that, I would incessantly pester Mrs Wong as to what made me “special”, and she would refuse to budge and shoo me away.
Once, when I was walking to the bathroom after dinner and bumped into one the kids from Group B, a stout and unassuming boy named Ben. “Hi,” I greeted, hoping to make a new friend. Ben’s gaze darted away from mine, and his pace quickened as he tried to walk past me. The smile on my face disappeared. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “It’s..it’s just that my friends told me that you people are freaks and I shouldn’t be talking to you,” he blurted, before taking off into a run back to Group B’s dorm.
I was only six then.
Dr Lim frowns and retracts his pen. He slurps on his mug of coffee, and clears his throat. He sits up and leans in, eyes welling up with sympathy. “Ah boy, are you alright?” he asks.
“Never been better,” I reply.
2. I See A Little Silhouette Of A Man
The man in the black hat started visiting me ever since I was five. Unlike other visitors who would make a very big deal out of their presence, either by buying gifts for all of us, or by having their chatter resonate throughout the entire orphanage, the man in the black hat did none of that. He would simply pop in and out whenever he pleased, even at extremely ungodly hours. He claimed that he was a close relative of mine, and even if he wasn’t related to me by blood, he certainly proved to be a father figure to me, giving me advice in my darkest hours, and helping me cope with life in school and in the orphanage. He would always be dressed in a leather jacket and blue jeans, his hair slicked backwards and his moustache always trimmed to look like Freddie Mercury’s. Last but not the least, his eccentric black fedora, which complimented his strong jaw and penetrating gaze.
Still, he never told me his name, and I could only resort to naming him by his most outlandish feature- his hat. I never understood why no one in the orphanage even turned to look at him whenever we had our conversations, even though he was wearing a fedora in a place like Singapore. I remember one of our conversations, four years ago. I was sulking on my bed, and the man in the black hat grabbed a chair and sat beside me. “What happened?” he asked, his gaze sweeping over my messy bed sheets, and then to my exasperated expression. At that point in my life, most of my classmates had already found out about my plight, and it showed. No, I wasn’t bullied, nor was I teased or made fun of. In fact, I wouldn’t have even minded if they teased me instead, but what they actually did tugged harder on my nerves. They treated me like a toddler- slower words, exaggerated hand gestures, and that derisive look they would always give me whenever I asked for a favour. At one point I got sick of it, and I flew into an outburst that was so loud that even I was surprised by it. It wasn’t just an outburst, mind you- that was the result of half a year’s worth of disgruntlement.
“You ever feel like you’re not as good as everyone else?” I answered.
The man in the black hat frowned. “No, never.” He would then go on to ask me what the problem was, and I would give a half-hearted reply. The man in the black hat leaned over and whispered,
“Don’t worry: you’ll have the spotlight one day.”
Once again the door swings open, and in comes another man dressed in a white shirt, who gives Dr Lim a polaroid, and leaves. Dr Lim eyeballs the picture, and holds it up to show me.
“You recognise this person? You remember what happened to her?”
3. No Escape From Reality
One day I was pulled aside after dinner, to a quiet corner in my dorm, and all the folks from Group B would watch as Mrs Wong shut the door behind her, and I heard hushed voices outside the room. The man in the black hat was there too, smiling.
“I have some good news, and it’s something you’ve always hoped for,” Mrs Wong began. My right eyebrow rose on instinct- a sign of incredulity. Surely it wouldn’t actually happen?
“Your biological parents called us. They’re coming for a visit tomorrow.”
I waited. I waited for the lights to go off and till everyone slept. I waited for hours to pass and pretended to close my eyes until the caretakers stopped their patrols. Afterwards, I got up to prepare for the day ahead.
My parents had arranged to visit at 2pm. At 1.30pm I was prancing around my room like a madman, thinking of what to say and what to do. Did they abandon me because they didn’t want me? No, maybe it’s because they were struggling financially, I’ve read that before. But surely no loving parent would willingly abandon their own children? The man in the black hat looked up at me and smirked.
“I know what you’re thinking, life’s tough. Sometimes you gotta accept things for what they are, and act upon them,” he remarked.
“You just have to trust your heart, especially for something like this, and do what your heart says,” he gestured at his chest.
I peered downwards, at the shiny gift in my hand, and I tightened my grasp on it.
I checked the time. 2pm.
The orphanage door clicked open.
Dr Lim scribbles furiously on his notebook for a good minute, before he finally looks at me straight in the eyes and asks,
“Close your eyes and go back to that day. Tell me, what do you see?”
I’m on a grass patch that stretches for miles, and I see a magnificent rainbow with all its shades of colours shimmering in their full glory. I see a family of three- a middle aged couple and their son playing gleefully at the other end. The only logical thing to do now is to approach them, and so I run to the end of the rainbow. But as I get closer and closer with each stride, the rainbow transitions into a sharp, searing crimson, and the family’s enthusiasm wanes. I finally see the boy’s face.
Gradually, the family’s movement slows, until they stop and stare at me. I’m now at the end of the rainbow, and everything darkens except a lone spotlight focused on the ground in front.
I see the corpse of a woman whom I’ve known my whole life.
Ang Zhi Hao Jovan
Photos (in order of appearance)