Halogen

Halogen

This short story, by Brian Ng of the University of Chicago, US, is the winner of the most creative prize in the second RTHK/SCMP Top Story 2012 competition, Junior Category.

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Halogen L
Illustration: Martin Megino

There he was! The motion blur enthusiastic, the resolution unbecoming, the hues yellowed, the memories faded. Still, the photo was unmistakably of him.

Position: right of centre, but close enough. Smile: broad, cherubic, natural. Eyes: beady, staring upwards, a bit vacuous, but somehow glowing, victorious. Hair: thin, prickly foliage, pleasurable for a hand to brush through. Skin: smooth, with an angelic halo from neck and forehead, likely due to perspiration and harsh lighting.

Body: frozen in unstable stasis, the fleshy forelimbs stretching out, jabbing the air, tugging the pudgy shoulders, the thick neck, chest, torso, and feet. "His mother's face, his father's eyes," relatives used to announce endlessly.

And if all that were not obvious enough, the caption noted: "We Are The Champions: (from left) Jonathan Kong, Alicia Lee" - and him - "Kelvin Lam, winners of the Inaugural Community Chest Baby Crawling Contest."

"You were about a year old at the time. We tried so hard to get you to crawl between the lines," his mother had remarked to him about the picture, with a hint of the measured wistfulness she'd gained with her wrinkles. "Oh, and we won a Lego set."

He felt, strangely, embarrassed. He was alone at his parents' house - his father had passed away, his mother was visiting friends in Shanghai. He flipped the page: "Super Junior 3-on-3 Mini-Basketball Tournament Spirit Award." Why was he reading this anyway? There was a presentation he had to complete before the night was out, e-mails he should have replied to 15 minutes ago, a play to attend.

Memories kept creeping in anyway: the putrid smell of sweat, the squeaking waxed floorboards, the homely miniature of the half-court, the first taste of crass locker-room talk. And then: his first award ceremony. He would not sit still in the cheap plastic seats that filled the stadium, and kept chatting with his teammates. The tiny trophy he had received was still on open display in the cabinet at his parents' house, next to the family photos.

But most of all he remembered the buzz - bright lights, beaming parents, camera flashes. The "Spirit Award" was no different from a consolation prize, but he didn't mind. Consolation was enough.

The rest of the heavy album, all report cards and certificates, catalogued its way to slightly more useful endeavours: grander podiums, heavier ivory paper, and more elaborate trinkets. "Rainbow Swimming Arts Scheme: 50 Metres" - he could almost smell the chlorine off the paper. "KMB Colouring Contest Merit Award (Group A: 3 Years or Under)": he had forgotten that one, but the tame, ordered, bright pencil strokes that filled the smiling bus made him doubt whether it was his own work.

The "Campus e-IT Typing Contest Certificate of Commendation", an amalgamation of 90s buzzwords set in Comic Sans MS and Microsoft Word clip-art, brought a hearty chuckle.

"Bronze Prize, 7th Canadian Embassy Story-Telling Contest (G5-6)", where he spun a tale about a mischievous child and a magical tree that could talk. Righteously he had proclaimed that human survival depended on strict obedience to the 4R's. He'd been memorising the speech for months in the living room, throwing in the necessary singsong cadences and dramatic movements. Alas, the girls always won.

Yet, he proudly noted, he was the only CMI student to make the cut, one whose alma mater's long roster of millionaires and charitable organisations stood out clumsily from hallowed names of privilege.

The stack of glossy paper must have meant something, though, because he did sneak past the admissions committees into one of those schools of privilege, complete with century-old halls befitted with watercolour portraits of austere alumni. Among the startlingly fresh photos: there he was, posing at the third row of his Form One class, next to Mark (International Mathematics Olympiad Hong Kong Team Representative), behind Allison (Geography Form Prize, HKU LLB 1st Hon). There he was, rightmost second row, on the cross-country team, behind the men with the wild eyes and chiselled quadriceps.

More faces he didn't quite recognise but could hazard guesses where they would end up. The number of awards seemed to dwindle. But he'd ached for them, the bombastic platitudes heavy with insignificance, glowing defences against mediocrity, lovingly cradled under transparent plastic covers. The thin, glossy films riddled in their ostentation: the insignia of paper stock, revealed by topography. His name nakedly splayed out at the centre, accompanied by an illegible signature for legitimacy. Sponsors' logos lining up like nodding scouts. Self-important bromides, he knew, but his ego urged him on.

Roughly between the "Speech Festival Bible Reading Merit Award" and "Interclass Tennis Tournament Gold Team Prize" was Macy. They were classmates for two years. One time her right arm had landed on his shoulders and her head on his lap. The other time their feet mingled. They talked sometimes, shared the occasional song lyric. Once, during those humourless midnight conversations, he'd said - this was what reminded him of her - "Do you remember when they gave you a prize for some Maths Olympiad thing when we were in Form Three?"

Hazy silence followed, except for the rubbery mmm-hmmmph of the shifting receiver. "I felt so blindly, doggedly jealous," he continued, "as if it were a personal injustice." How had she responded? He'd forgotten. He imagined she'd taken the question in and left it hanging: she had her way of illuminating answers just by listening. He knew she had graver problems; she had a circular gash on her left arm and a mole on her neck, both of which she shrugged off. But they inexplicably drifted apart, just as they'd become close. They stood in different lines for the graduation photo, planets in separate orbits. She was a physics teacher now, he had heard, God bless her.

The album left off there. He sat, as if paralysed, as nostalgia overwhelmed him like a tidal wave, while the obsidian pages sunk into his eyes. Trembling, he struggled to lift up the album - then, abruptly, the wave broke, the emotions dissolved. He slipped the album back among the dusty shelves and turned off the light.

Within a half-hour he changed into a Lacoste shirt and arrived hastily at a chapel in Tin Hau. Emma was already there, watching intently; her slim frame fitted with her blue beaded navy top and the necklace. A fruitful career in HR had sprouted from her quiet ambition, no-nonsense talk and social poise. "You've got to watch the play," she'd said a few days ago. "The primary school teachers will be looking closely for dedicated parents. Especially the ones who'll pay for DVDs."

"Sorry," he murmured as her mouth puckered into a gentle hush. The play had been on for a few minutes: a children's production of the Exodus. His son, Alexander, was playing Aaron - who, upon reading the pamphlets, he discovered was Moses' brother. He knew the story anyway, from over-zealous religious-studies teachers' lessons and sermons he'd slept through. The kids were all in white tunics and bushy beards. God, an older boy with talc-dusted hair, had appeared before Moses and named him the liberator of the Israelites, appeased his many fears, set a bush on fire - he'd remembered that.

"Then," the narrator boomed, "God instructed Moses and Aaron to speak with the Pharaoh." (Philip shot him a few e-mails; drafts of the pitch for Tuesday, mostly. He returned terse missives.) Moses spoke in front of the seated Pharaoh while Aaron tagged along. Moses called Aaron to drop his staff; Aaron did, and it turned into a snake. "If you do not follow His words," Aaron said, "God will turn all the water in Egypt into blood." (A pain shot up his spine, and he shifted uncomfortably on the wooden bench. Ellen glanced at him, concerned.) "If you do not follow," Aaron said, "God will plague the kingdom with frogs!" (The pain pulsated wildly like a short circuit; he reminded himself to mention it in the medical check-up next week.) "The night will come upon Egypt," Aaron announced, stomped, then bellowed with rage, "Let my people go!"

The play ended a while later. The cast bowed and were handed certificates. He and Emma seized the opportunity to speak to members of the clergy about how they could make sure their son's primary school application stood out from the others. "Trombones," a pastor suggested, "the brass ensembles need some fresh blood."

Emma caught up with the fellow parents she knew to congratulate each other on their respective good fortunes. Everyone gathered their belongings to head out. Alexander emerged, his theatrical robes removed to show his T-shirt and shorts.

"How did I do?" he asked bashfully. "Wonderful," Emma said, beaming. "But you shouldn't have fiddled with your hair when you were onstage," she scolded him. "That was not too becoming. But otherwise, excellent."

"We're proud of you," he said, and indeed they were. He would have held Alexander up on his shoulders, had not his back reeled, but the boy was six and was already beginning to shy away from excessive displays of affection. "I won't repeat that mistake," Alexander said, as they filed into their sedan. "Trust me."

Repeat. Trust. Alexander showed a way with words for his young age. Just a week ago, he'd announced to his kindergarten teacher that his favourite colour was "cerulean". How'd he come up with that? Emma mentioned Spanish lessons, or French, to draw on the boy's language potential, with some story-telling competitions on the side, as well.

Ah, this is the moment he remembers: Alexander endearingly singing along to Canto-pop on the radio; Emma neatly filing the crumpled certificate into a transparent acrylic folder; him blissfully ignorant of what his back pain would soon entail; traffic unobtrusive and soundless. And along the road, an array of halogen street lamps, unremarkable little things, bowing meekly, shining softly to the others.

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