He still has the suspicion that the venue where this photo was taken is in existence. At a long shot, he believes he knows the exact location.
This might have taken place more than thirty years ago now. The images and scenes associated with this (momentous) event of his life are extremely sketchy now. But he could piece together the faintest of memories of that day.
School halls which doubled up as internal badminton courts were extremely common in the Seventies. He could still remember the dark faux wooden panels that lined the walls of the hall, the uncomfortable wooden chairs, the smells of a school (which would be unmistakable for him in years to come) and the crowd which filled it – kids decked in their kindergarten uniforms of white shirts and red checkered shorts with their parents in tow.
He had forgotten the details of how he got nominated but he recalled the moment when he stood on stage (in this school hall) and told a story (which he tried extremely hard to memorise) to the crowd. It was story-telling competition day organised by (he thinks) the People’s Association for the kids in this part of the wee island.
For a five-year-old kid, he thought this was an extremely testing but valuable experience in public speaking. He remembered how the parental units egged him on with the practice in reciting the story during their regular walking trips to the neighbourhood library. It was from here that the fears of public speaking and microphones were dispelled for a considerable length of time. (And years later, it would put him in good stead again in an entirely different environment.)
He can no longer recall which story he told. But the photo, perhaps lovingly taken by his parental units, was a bridge of sorts to trigger this memory and that other photo of him receiving a prize from some very important person served to help him remember that he came in third in this competition. For a long while, the trophy was placed on the dresser of his parents’ room. Perhaps it was lovingly placed there in pride, even though he came in third. It remained there for years to come; a tacit reminder of the time the entire family collectively helped him to achieve something that maybe not many kids at that age could.
And for that, he was grateful.
If anything the house move has opened up an entire treasure trove of things that would trigger the sweet (and precious) memories of childhood.
Closing his eyes, he pictured how they looked when they were cradled (probably clumsily) in his hands. The boxes which held the plastic components would have been in pristine condition. They might have given off a faint musky smell (from the cardboard).
They must have made him a happy, happy young lad.
Almost three decades later, he found them stacked up in a cupboard in the new place. The boxes were now in a dilapidated condition and their plastic contents might no longer be complete. This stemmed from how clumsy he was in looking after his toys and years of neglect when he graduated to electronic toys.
But these plastic components kept him occupied for hours on end as a child. First, they introduced him to the essential need to read instructions (because without them, the stuff that he built would not make any sense), which was something that he brought to adulthood. Secondly, they removed his dependency for a playmate (though the flip side to this was how they hampered the growth of his social skills, which he also carried to adulthood). Thirdly, he might have learnt about how life could present many goals.
Every single piece of them gradually led him to a goal – of a completed piece or the beginning of a story. When put together collectively, they were the tools with which he could exercise his imagination. The world was filled with stories he could create and then tell (to himself and years later, the ex-sarong kebaya girl). Because they were his sole form of entertainment, his attention span was almost entirely focused on them. They kept him occupied for hours on end and he would cry only when they were forcibly taken away from him.
In the heart and mind of a young boy, they were his world before he learnt (years later) about escapism and virtual worlds.
So when he saw these boxes again as a not-so-swinging bachelor with a bulging paunch, they triggered swathes of emotions within him. The condition of the boxes resulted in a slight pang of pain in his heart. The faded colours on them were telling of their age. They were the toys, precious and priceless, of a young lad who grew up in the 70s, way before the era of electronic devices with sensitive touch screens. They were very much a part of him and his growing-up years.
The brand of these plastic bricks exists today. There were threads about people collecting them on internet forums. Memories of playing with these plastic bricks would send him looking for the stacks of boxes of the newer models whenever he found himself in a toy shop. In between sighs of how much more fortunate the current young urns are, he would gently brush his fingers on the smooth surfaces of the boxes as though he was gently clasping the hands of an old childhood friend.
They were not exactly cheap toys now, which made him wonder how much dearer they were thirty years back. Given a chance, he would like to know how many of them were gifts and which of them was that that were paid from the blood, sweat and tears of his parental units.
The boxes are now sitting in a bookshelf. His eventual plan was to open them up slowly and restore them to their “glory” as they were almost thirty years ago.
And one day, perhaps way into the future, he would sit his son down and tell him about these little plastic bricks which somewhat defined his life (in some small ways).
He was at the place where they spent the most time together. It was where they watched movies, relished their pasta and savoured cheesy pizzas; in between, they shared with each other stories of their days. The bubble tea place in the building’s basement was where he introduced her to his favourite tea — longan and red date milk tea (the look on her face, as it becomes clearer to him now, suggested that it wasn’t the best drink she had in her life).
He went back to this place again today, where all of these memories came from. In his wallet, a stack of old movie ticket stubs were stashed. He had intended to get one of those scrapbooks where the hitherto precious memories could be kept for posterity. Now, they are remnants of unwanted pain…
Cradling the phone in his hands, he stared at her name and number one last time. The thought of storing their whatsapp messages, months of them, crossed his mind only briefly. Taking in a deep breath, he gently tapped on the phone’s clear glass screen. In his heart, he hoped that this little gesture would bring some form of closure for his life. That and sending the old movie tickets on their way to their fiery end.
For him, December was akin to a Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde month with possibly equal amounts of hope and despair spread evenly across its 31 days.
Hope brought along smiles. He remembered the trip to get Christmas presents for her. He could still picture himself in that little shoppe which sold all sorts of artsy and handicraft stuff, poring through the designs of wrapping paper on offer. In his left hand was a bag, which held three bars of her favourite dark chocolate, from three different places on Earth. They came wrapped, without a ribbon ‘cos he thought it to be a little tacky. In his other hand was a gadget, also a gift for her. The wrapping paper he was looking for would hold it as the second gift while the third was a card, in which he would write words straight from his heart. It was meant as a tacit expression of his interest in making things between them work.
He could remember how light-hearted he felt as he boarded the train with the three gifts in his hands. He would love to see the expression on her face when they were presented to her, even if she could choose to unwrap them in the comfort and perhaps, privacy of her own room later. But what mattered more for him was a positive response; any form of it.
He thought nothing about what she could give him. A simple card would suffice, he thought to himself, I would be more than happy with that.
The parental units were the sources of despair. The impending move – having lived in this same place for half their entire lives (and almost in its entirety for him) – caused them to be easily irritable and grumpy. His idea of a relatively smooth transition to a new abode was shattered repeatedly but decisions and actions that, at best, perplexed him. There were moments when taking on a neutral stance was impossible.
Now, midway through the first month of the New Year, he looked back at December misty-eyed. It represented the final month of hope before everything was taken away from him, seemingly, on the first day of the New Year. He thought he was closer to love than anything he had experienced. There were the weekly trips to the movies, the dinners, the conversations, and her company.
For him, December was nothing more than a bittersweet month.