2018 Summer short story: A tough lesson that will pull at your heartstrings

2018 Summer short story: A tough lesson that will pull at your heartstrings

Bailey desperately wants to believe in his parents, his teacher, and the system governing his city. But how can he, when they keep letting him down?

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Illustration: Ken Cheng/SCMP

This story was written by Iris Lee, a 16-year-old student at Hong Kong International School.

This story is one of the finalists of Young Post’s 2018 Summer Short Story Competition. Each week during the holidays, we will publish one of the finalists’ stories. Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book which each finalist will receive a copy of. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 25.


Real art

Bailey waded in dirt and boredom on his way home from school.

The History Exam was next week. Graduation – the determiner of his future, the sorting into Categories – was the week after. And look at him, going off after school to buy a Caspar David Friedrich print! The audacity, passers-by would think. What romance, what devilish rebellion!

He reached the small, cardboard-patched art parlour, which was a dollop of nature in an apathetic Hong Kong cityscape, a dose of freedom from a history class that taught Romantic art like it was a maths formula.

What do you like about this photo? A raised hand: very representative of the Romantic era because it was all about landscapes …

He carefully brushed the film of dust away from the print, revealing the wispy hues underneath. The words slipped out of his mouth, as if he would forget if he didn’t say them out loud.

“It’s like, like it would – I don’t know – be gone, so you have to put all of it in your brain before it’s gone.”

The old prole behind the counter simply nodded. “They don’t teach it like this in school.” Nod.

Then the prole smiled serenely, stretching his flabby gums. “I betcha you’re gonna end up like me.” Bailey recoiled.

“A Category 2 or 3 prole?”

“Category 1 kids wouldn’t be caught dead here,” he wheezed dramatically on the word “dead”. “Category 1 kids don’t buy art because they think it’s nice. They buy it to study for exams.”

Bailey pretended to understand, then shoved stiff crisp bills at the prole, grabbed the print and hurried away. He received ragged bills full of holes in change. He didn’t know how he would explain them to his parents.

His parents. What would they say?

Now the passers-by were sending condescending looks his way: dumb prole kid! He shrunk back, head down, and scurried down the street. The effects of his old back brace clearly weren’t as permanent as the doctor had said they would be – he was violating so many of his parents’ posture codes. He remembered the stiff steel digging into his spine, melding his bones to metal to straighten his stance. Lately, it was like he was slumping a little more each day – not much, but enough to make a difference. Reversed growth.

His parents looked at him quizzically when he walked in. “Why are you so late?”

“Some … stupid prole on the street, you know,” he lied casually and made to go into his room.

“How many times have we told you? No eye contact, head down, and keep walking!”

He avoided their eyes, muttered an “mhm”, and shut his bedroom door.

Dr Abel Baines

Immediately, he was blindsided by the framed portrait of Dr Abel Baines. It was mandatory to have a copy in every room of the house, to ogle at a few times a day.

As if there weren’t enough reminders of their own inadequacy in their lives. Bailey had read reviews of the portrait in school that described Baines like a deity, but he couldn’t see it. All he saw was a man with clouded eyes like mud.

Bailey took out the crumpled Friedrich print. He could feel the fog curl against his fingers when he touched it, could feel the wind blow in his hair.

Then, he carefully tucked it underneath Dr Baines’s portrait. He half wanted to cut out those eyes so that the muted blues of the Friedrich would come through. No one would think to remove Dr Baines’s portrait from the wall – he was a genius after all.

Bailey mock-saluted him, imagining what he would say if he met Dr Baines in person. “Thank you for your positive reforms of the education system,” maybe. Absolutely wonderstruck, eyes glistening with medicinal liquid dropped from eye droppers. Trite, he thought, but it will do.

The History Exam is next week, Dr Baines seemed to reply, the lines on his face set and stern. It may determine the outcome of your Graduation.

It was as if he had reached out from the portrait and slapped him upside the head. Now he really felt like cutting the man’s eyes out.

When he bought a series of history lecture videos online off the government education website, his parents had cheered and gladly paid for it. “Not one cent out of your allowance for this, all right?” Dad had said.

“We’re happy you’ve decided to take charge of your own education … a week before Graduation,” his mother added.

Now, he clicked on the first video and a girl appeared. She looked like she had been engineered to perfection in a lab – she had sleek black hair, and teeth like grid paper. She had a posture that made him think she had been born with a back brace. This multiplied his enthusiasm for history tenfold.

“Hello,” she said. “My name is Valerie. I’ll be your history teacher for the next few months – if you can tolerate me, that is.” She let out a tinkly, princess-like laugh. Bailey smiled involuntarily. He thought that he could tolerate her very well.

“Our first lesson will be all about foundations! Foundations of history, and what angle we should approach it from. I have here a poem that exemplifies our lesson for today.”

Words appeared on the screen:

The toughest wood with brightest blaze will greet,
The hardest nut contains the sweetest meat;
So wisdom, gained by light of midnight oil,
Gives richest recompense to patient toil.
Industry by Charles Eugene Banks

“This poem encompasses the eternal lesson of human history: that individual striving will always secure your success in this world, no matter your background or the privileges you are born with,” Valerie explained.

Nothing he didn’t know. His parents had explained this motto to him, and their turntable expectations had made it so that the words had drilled a hole into his head. Still, the poem’s words were romantic and dynamic – a lilt, and a shift, and a vibrato. He drenched his head with the music of it, the image of a hardworking farmer, and the muted, woody-brown scents.

“And this is why we have the Category system today, all thanks to Dr Abel Baines!” She uttered his name like it was many syllables. “He set up the first of many schools that would incorporate his genius ideas: sorting students into Category 1, 2, and 3 to measure levels of achievement in life. Everyone is measured by the same standards. Remember – if you perform at your optimum level, you will be selected for Category 1 by default. The fault is yours if you fail. You will have made the conscious choice to not try your best.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Speaking of failing, Category 2 and 3 citizens are often referred to as proles. It’s an extremely degrading slang term. Please don’t call anyone a prole.”

Bailey gulped.

After the lecture, he paused the video to just when her fingers were touching the screen to turn the camera off. Bailey gazed at her image, blushing slightly. Tentatively, he reached out a hand until his fingertips looked as if they were meeting hers. His battery went dead, and his fingers were soon touching nothing but a blank screen.

An ideal Candidate

In the next lecture, Bailey watched Valerie fiddle with the hem of her dress as she explained how Dr Baines was the ideal Category 1 candidate.

He was born to the prominent Li Sek-peng family of Hong Kong CEOs, tycoons, chairmen, and government officials. His British father was rich from working in finance, he was punctual and careful in his classes, and his academics stellar.

“And of course, quite the hair,” Valerie grinned jokingly, giving Bailey a delightful glimpse of her grid paper teeth. “Come to think of it, he wasn’t all that bad looking. I sure wouldn’t be against marrying someone like that.”

He quickly glanced at the portrait of Dr Baines on the wall. Black hair, fleshy cheeks. Eyes just a little too close together, he thought irritably. They placed themselves obnoxiously on top of Friedrich’s soft blues. He wanted to grab Baines’s elitist shoulders and give them a good hard shake.

“A quintessential person that exemplifies the successes of our education system,” Valerie chirped. “A self-made man!”

After the lecture, Bailey didn’t bother to pause the video as he had done before. Instead, he switched the screen off, feeling angry tears prick his eyes. How could Valerie admire such a pig of a man?

Bailey shivered under the covers that night, the picture of Baines ingrained in his mind. The man’s hair reminded him of the black chemicals his mother drenched her roots with every morning. He threw off the covers and sat up, looking at his mussed hair in the mirror. It was a muddy brown and greased into spikes. A stark contrast to Baines’s short dark locks that were sophisticatedly swept to the side.

It was midnight. He needed scissors. He found a bright red pair with shining blades, and held them up to his face in the mirror. He shredded the blades through the greasy mass, wrenched tufts of hair from his scalp, and watched them drift to the floor. Then, he threw the tufts down as hard as he could.

When he was done, he rummaged through his mother’s kit of chemicals. An acid tang filled the air. He found a pot of hair gel, swept his hair to the left, then changed his mind and swept it to the right. More rummaging unearthed some metallic bottles labelled RAVEN BLACK ROBUST HAIR DYE, and he poured it over his scalp without hesitation. He used another bottle, more gel, more scissors. More scars on head. Nearly cleaved my head in two, he thought gleefully as he raked his fingers through his newly black hair, flinching only slightly when he brushed against the gashes on his scalp.

He looked at the finished product, then at Baines’s portrait on the wall. He did look like Baines. He pulled his lips into the same smug thin-lipped grin in the portrait.

Dear Valerie, he wrote.

I cut my hair after you talked about how you loved that monster Abel Baines’s hair. Even though I hate everything he stands for.

His heart was pulsating against his ribs. He was starting to realise what he had done. He didn’t know if he was upset with his teacher, or the system that she was bound to enforce and he follow.

A fate decided

As he walked into the Train Station for Graduation, Bailey knew for a fact he hadn’t passed the History Exam. That was why he wasn’t surprised when he was proclaimed a Category 2 citizen.

As he was forced onto the Category 2 train, he saw her.

Valerie. There, in the flesh.

She was smiling, shaking hands, radiant, and orderly, and careful. Bailey sucked in a breath. He wanted to call out to her. His lips formed the syllables of her name. Finally, they choked themselves free.

“Valerie!”

His heart sobbed silently. Category 2. Baines. Friedrich. Valerie.

She turned sharply; saw Bailey’s wet cheeks. Her face wrinkled. Her first – and last – words to him: “Get that dirty prole away from me.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

 

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
A tough lesson to learn

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