Bryan lumbered past his desk and flopped onto his bed, teary-eyed and frustrated. He glared angrily at the stack of books that he had thrown on the floor in a tantrum.
“Bryan! Pick up those assessment books right now!” His mother’s bellow sent tremors through his limp body. He scurried to gather the accursed books – the bane of his short existence, the inescapable chore of the Singaporean student. Why was his slave-driving mother so obsessed with these anthologies of tedium?
Bryan was familiar with the routine by now. His mother, Mrs Ong, would invest in new assessment books three times a year – at the start of the academic year, at the midpoint, and once again before the final exams, just to be sure. Of course, they had to be the thickest ones with the latest MOE syllabus, recommended by the snooty parents of the brainiest kid in class. The moment the plastic wrapping was off the books, the answer keys would be ripped out and locked in Mrs Ong’s drawer – the same one in which the cane was kept.
The books would greet him upon his return from school and fill the rest of his afternoon till 5 pm, when he was allowed to play till dinner at six. Even that sacred hour of recreation was curtailed if he was caught dozing off or playing on his phone instead of focusing on his English comprehension passages or Math problem-solving questions. Oftentimes, his curmudgeonly grandmother would drift into his room and complain about the slothfulness and ingratitude of millennials.
“Young people nowadays…” Ah Ma would rant incessantly. “Your Ah Gong and I worked so hard to give you a better life. Study hard and score well in your tests.”
“Don’t be lazy like your useless father.”
Eyes shut, fists clenched, muscles tense – that was Bryan’s typical reaction to the frequent soul-crushing barbs that Ah Ma spat out of her vile, toothless mouth. What else could he do? If he responded with a smart-ass answer, his ass would smart from the sting of his mother’s cane. So he just stared intently at his assessment book till his vision blurred.
Blur like sotong. Bryan never fully understood this playful pejorative (what’s so “blur” about a squid?) but it was one of the milder ones thrown at his father. True, Mr Ong was often dull and absent-minded, but even the most cerebral of men would be the same after clocking twelve-hour shifts in a cab, day in, day out. Deep down, Bryan knew that he was lucky to have such an industrious father. But try as he might, he could not shake off the shame that clouded his head every time he saw his father in his taxi.
But more than shame, resentment filled the young boy’s heart as he saw his father leave the house every weekend and public holiday to ferry passengers across the island. Other kids’ fathers would take them to the soccer field or swimming pool. But not Bryan’s father. He had to work every bloody day. Why couldn’t he get a better job and earn more money? Why didn’t he study harder in school?
“Maybe Ah Ma is right,” Bryan thought as he hung his head over his crisp, new assessment books. He immediately recoiled at the notion that he was actually in agreement with the crabby old hag. But how could he deny his grandmother’s interminable accusations – that his father didn’t study hard enough, that the whole family was suffering because of his father’s laziness in school, that he himself was en route to economic redundancy?
What if he turned out to be a failure? Nobody cared about failures. Was he destined to be one?
Enough. These ominous thoughts weighed him down like a millstone. He stormed across his room, locked the door, grabbed his phone, and dove into bed again. He knew his mother would come knocking soon, but damn the consequences! There were 158 unread messages in his class Whatsapp group that needed to be read.
“gongcha is opening at singpost next week!!! 😀 😀 😀 “
“class outing leh”
“i wan i wan i wan”
“hey my fren say that he gg to queue up the night before…”
“wa lao eh your fren damn bo liao lor”
“who else wants to go?”
“hey you all retarded or what?”
There he was, right on cue. The genius-in-residence, Aloysius Tan, had a Pavlovian need to deride anything that he found trivial and absurd. The egotistical son of a bookish university professor, Aloy soared well above his classmates in both intelligence and arrogance. He was a voracious reader, devouring every book the school library had to offer. On the one occasion that he was invited to a class outing to watch The Hunger Games, he emerged from the cinema with his characteristic smirk, claiming triumphantly that the book was still better than the movie.
“You mean the movie is based on a book?” The words tumbled out of Bryan’s mouth before he realised the folly of revealing his ignorance to the smart alec.
Aloy rolled his eyes in pitiful contempt. “Please lah, I read the book two years ago. Suzanne Collins is one of my favourite authors. I guess you could say she has a very novel way of writing!” Bryan couldn’t understand why Aloy was sniggering to himself, which made him laugh even harder.
Bryan went home that day and asked his mother if he could buy the entire Hunger Games trilogy. “Read story book for what?” his mother retorted. “Don’t waste your time; your exams are coming soon. No need for childish story books, just do your assessment books!”
As Bryan lay on his mattress recounting the condescending insults of his classmate, his train of thought was derailed by the violent knocking on his bedroom door. “Open the door now!” His mother’s hysterical screech could only mean one thing – his buttocks had an appointment with the rotan. Bryan ran to open the door, but not before putting on an extra set of underwear.
They say that if you spare the rod, you’ll spoil the child. But Mrs Ong believed that if she spoiled the rod on her son’s bottom, she’d spare her child a future of aimlessness and regret. Sloth was anathema to her; disobedience was even worse. Bryan had defiantly demonstrated both. So down came the cane, sharp and swift. Each whimper from her son was a chisel to her heart, but she had to mask it.
“Finish your work, or no dinner for you!” she sternly instructed her sobbing son. Bryan got to work without hesitation.
He soon heard his father shuffle through the front door. In America, when the man of the house returns from work, his dog greets him exuberantly and his wife smothers him with a wet kiss – or at least that’s what happens on TV. But not in the Ong household. Mr Ong took his seat in the dining room while his wife laid the table, dutifully but joylessly.
Bryan soldiered on through his assessment book. The silence outside was deafening, broken only by the occasional clicking of chopsticks. But his father was about to open the floodgates.
“I earned even less this week,” Mr Ong lamented. His soft, piercing words hung in the air like a noose. Bryan could only imagine the scowl on his mother’s face now as she loaded her sharp tongue with a barrage of questions.
“Are you driving in the city centre? Is your taxi meter working properly? Has the taxi rent increased? How long is your lunch break? Did you buy 4D? How can we afford Chinese tuition for Bryan like this?” Her agitation rose steadily with each question. Before long, Ah Ma interjected.
“Drive taxi also cannot make it. Useless bugger.” There was truly no limit to Ah Ma’s vitriol.
“You think it’s so damn easy ah? Everyone wants to use Uber, use Grab… WHAT THE HELL CAN I DO?” Bryan hadn’t heard his father growl like that in months.
Mrs Ong hit the roof. “Stop making excuses! If you cannot make money, find another job!”
“What other job? Like he said, WHAT THE HELL CAN HE DO?” Ah Ma’s mocking mimicry could get under anyone’s skin.
“I’ve had enough of your shit!” Bryan gasped as he heard a glass shatter, followed by heavy footsteps and the slam of the front door. He clasped his ears as he read his Math question aloud.
“Ali has 140 marbles. He gives some marbles to Bala, leaving him with twice as many marbles as Charlie…”