Lee Russell‘s simple but uplifting tale merges elements of fantasy with the too-real problems of Singapore’s education system. His story raises questions about the efficacy of our education system, what the point of studying is, and the beauty of literature – questions most, if not all, literature students have had to grapple with at some time.
Michael sat at the bus stop, watching the vehicles vroom past. His eyes were fixed on the hedge that divided the road between its coming and going lanes, such that the crisp forms of the cars, buses and taxis were reduced only to greyish blurs.
A bus cruised to a halt before him. With a groan, the doors opened and regurgitated a swarm of students in grey. They scurried towards the gate behind the bus stop, some slowing to offer Michael and his grey uniform odd looks. From the distance came a bell’s chime, muffled as if heard from within a pool of water.
Michael raised his watch. It was 8 o’clock.
I don’t even know why I come here anymore.
He boarded the next bus that arrived and picked a window seat so he could stare outside. It wasn’t long before a vibration in his pocket interrupted his ride.
He took out his phone. “Hello?”
“Michael?” A woman’s voice came from the receiver. “Hi, this is Mrs. Tan. Are you coming to school today?”
“No. I’m having a fever. Sorry for not telling you earlier.”
“Have you gone to see the doctor?” Concern coloured the woman’s voice.
“Not yet. When I woke up for school this morning I went back to bed straightaway because I had a very bad headache. I only just woke up again. I’m planning to go see the doctor after I eat breakfast.”
“Did you check your temperature?”
“It was 38. But my headache is better now so I think I’ll be okay after I take some medicine.”
“That’s quite high. Make sure you rest well today, okay?” Mrs. Tan adopted a firm tone. “And let me know in advance if you won’t be coming to school tomorrow.”
“Oh, I returned the class their mid-term papers already. Do you want to know your results?”
“Maths, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, GP. All As.” Mrs. Tan’s voice rose both in pitch and tempo. “Well done.”
Michael’s lips hardened into a straight line. “Wow, I wasn’t expecting to do so well.”
“If only the rest of the class could be more like you.”
Drawing his gaze away from the window and to his feet, Michael fidgeted.
“Okay, sorry for interrupting your rest. Take care of yourself. I’ll see you in class when you’re feeling better.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Tan. See you.”
Michael leaned back and stared at the ceiling.
Straight A’s again. But I don’t even remember anything I studied. What am I doing?
As if all the air in the bus suddenly amassed around Michael’s neck, his throat tightened and he clutched a hand over his mouth.
He disembarked at the next stop to a cluster of HDB flats he failed to recognise. Turning back, he caught a glimpse of the number of the bus as it departed: 77. The same bus he took to school and back every day. He tried to recall the window scenery of his daily morning trips but nothing came to mind.
I better check the bus numbers.
But he found no signs, no benches, not even the usual pole denoting the name of the bus stop. Michael scrunched his eyes.
Is this even a bus stop?
He took out his phone and tapped the icon labelled ‘Google Maps’. The next moment, his phone emitted a weak vibration and the screen went black. Michael sighed.
Stuffing the device back into his pocket, he looked around. There were no road signs at the end junction and, on the grey paint faces of the HDB blocks, only numbers were placed. Across the road was a compound of white buildings from which the sounds of children rang out. Apart from that, the street was silent.
A distant rumbling turned Michael towards the HDB flats.
An MRT station?
He felt his throat with one hand and his stomach with the other. Once done, he strode off.
Like a palm with fingers all pointing skyward, a plaza was situated within the cluster of blocks. In it were grassy patches spotted with bright flowers, and a modest playground sat in the middle. It had monkey bars, a swing and a castle with a slide. A boy was sitting on a bench near the playground, eyes fixed on the castle walls.
“Excuse me.” The boy spoke the moment Michael crossed his line of vision.
“Yes?” Michael turned his head.
From his seat, the boy raised a pointed finger. “Can you help me take my ball, mister? It bounced somewhere around there.”
Michael followed the finger’s gaze and found a basketball hidden beneath the slide.
Retrieving it, he tossed it towards the boy. “Here.” But the boy’s arms remained still even as the ball flew through the air.
The boy jerked to the left as the ball slammed into the bench right next to his head and ricocheted into the sky.
Bonk. Bonk. Bonk.
“Sorry.” Running to retrieve the ball a second time, Michael carried it over to the bench. “Here.”
Staring straight at Michael’s stomach, the boy spent several seconds groping for the ball.
When his fingers finally reached their mark, he smiled. “Thank you, mister.”
Michael took a step back and frowned. “Are you?”
The boy nodded as he bounced the ball on the ground. “Ya. I cannot see.”
“What are you doing at the playground all by yourself, then? Where are your parents?”
“At work. I’ve been blind for a few years already so I know how to come down and go up by myself. I always come here to play.”
A few years. “So you were not born blind?”
The ball bounced past the boy’s frozen fingers and fell underneath the bench.
“Sorry.” Michael’s voice softened as he retrieved the ball again. “I shouldn’t have asked that question.”
The boy shook his head as he bounced the ball. “It’s okay. I’m happy to have someone to talk to. Usually I play here alone the whole day until Mummy and Daddy reach home and bring me upstairs.”
“What time do they usually come back?”
“I don’t know. I cannot tell the time.” The boy caught the ball and stopped. “I got in an accident when I was crossing the road on the way back from school. That’s how I became blind.”
Taking a seat next to the boy, Michael sat in silence for a moment and asked, “Is there anything you miss?”
The boy laughed. “Everything.”
“Then what do you miss the most?”
The boy dropped his chin and spent a while rolling the ball in his hands. “Books.”
It was Michael’s turn to laugh.
Frowning, the boy turned. “What’s so funny?”
“Why would you miss books?” Michael’s voice was thick with condescension. “They’re just black and white only. So boring.”
“Have you read books before, mister?” The boy’s reply meandered with the lilt of curiosity.
“Of course. We have so many textbooks to study in school.”
“Not textbooks.” The boy sighed. “I mean storybooks. You know, like Hunger Games and Maze Runner.”
“Of course I’ve read storybooks also. I study Literature, you know.”
The boy’s frown grew wider and deeper. “You sure you read them properly?”
“Oi, I just got A for my Literature mid-term exam.”
“You must be colour blind.”
Michael’s smug grin faded as his eyelids snapped open. “How do you know?”
The boy’s frown vanished. “Really? You’re colour blind?”
A frown returned to the boy’s face as he turned away. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry. I’m okay. I don’t really care about it anyway. I was born colour blind so I don’t know anything about what colours are like. I have nothing to miss.”
Michael leaned back and stared at the clouds, white wisps on grey. “No. Actually I go for medical check-ups every year. But every time the doctor says there’s nothing wrong with my eyes.”
Pointing a finger, the boy aimed his face at Michael’s. “Maybe it’s not a problem in your eyes, but a problem in here.”
Michael looked down at his chest and chuckled. “What are you talking about?”
“What is it like to live without colours?”
“Like I said, I don’t even care-” Before he could finish, a snake circled itself around Michael’s throat.
He slapped both hands above his mouth as he broke into a coughing fit. Taking deep breaths through his nose as he gulped down the poison inside, two beads formed at the outermost corners of his eyes.
“It,” he tripped on the word. “It sucks. Everything is the same. Every day is the same. I go to school, listen to class, go home, do my homework, go to sleep. The same day every day. I don’t even know why I’m doing it. What’s the point? ”
A wave of heat rose from his feet and crashed into the top of his skull. The beads in his eyes shattered, spilling their liquid forth.
“I always get As for my exams because all I ever do in my free time is study, I don’t even know what else I can do. And I keep doing it because when I get As, Pa and Ma won’t disturb me and when they don’t disturb me I get more free time but what do I in my free time? I just study, I don’t even know if I’m really studying because I can’t even remember what I study.”
Panting, Michael hunched over his knees. His knuckles pressed over them were shivering even though there was lava slowly slithering down his back, dripping.
“So you don’t have fun?” the boy asked.
Michael laughed. “What is fun? I don’t know. I don’t even know what’s boring. They’re just words that people taught me.”
The boy stood and, basketball in hand, hobbled away into the HDB flats.
Covering his eyes, Michael rested his neck on the spine of the bench.
Shit. Why did I go and say all that stuff to a primary school kid? I’ve never talked to anyone like this before.
His skin was still burning with smouldering embers that chafed him when he moved so he remained there, quiet like a corpse. There was no time in the silence of the playground.
Michael blinked, expecting to be blinded by the brilliance of the sun but the world was just as dull as he remembered.
Black, white and grey. Those are the only things I ever remember.
The boy stretched a paperback out to Michael. “This is my favourite book. You can have it.”
Michael glanced at the cover without looking at the title. “Why?”
“I want to teach you about colours. But I think a book can do a better job. Books are full of colours, you know.”
Michael stared at the boy’s smile and mistakenly placed gaze.
Grabbing the book, he stood and walked away.
The moment Michael reached home, he locked his room door, shut the curtains and settled in a corner with a lamp dangling above his head. There, he opened the book and began to read. Instead of blurring through the text like he usually did, he focused on each word, lingering, giving each the opportunity to simmer in the sea of his mind and dissolve before the next splashed in.
As he progressed, light streamed out from the pages. It was warm, unlike any he had ever experienced before. He read on and, as the light intensified, the words detached themselves from the paper and floated into the air, transforming into bubbles of coloured vistas that replaced the walls of his room. Rivulets spilled down his cheeks as he flipped the pages over and over.
Michael awoke in the corner of his room. The book was gone. Light streamed in from behind the fluttering curtains. Rising, he pushed them aside and shoved the windows open.
That morning, the sky was blue.
LEE RUSSELL, not to be confused with local True Singapore Ghost Stories writer Russell Lee, is an aspiring novelist with a penchant for fantasy fiction. Easily entertained, his hobbies include doing basically anything. He currently runs the NUS Literary Society’s resident e-zine Symbal and hopes to expand it as a space for budding local writers to share their works, interact and be recognised for their creativity. You can check it out at nussymbal.wordpress.com.
Photo credit: Victoria Lee