This story was written by Benjamin Oh, a 16-year-old student from Chinese International School.
Congratulations to Benjamin for his winning entry in Young Post’s 2017 Summer Short Story Competition. He will be the lucky owner of a brand new iPad. A big thank you to everyone who took part!
“All the stories that you’ve ever heard about me are the good ones ...”
It was the last day of the school year — a bittersweet kind of day, in which nostalgia hangs in he air like a tropical mist, a day which sits on the threshold between old and new. Summer lay ahead like an expansive, open horizon.
We were sitting on a junk boat somewhere just off the coast near Sai Kung. The water was still, and the boat seemed to glide effortlessly through it. This was a long time ago, and some parts of my memory are hazy, but here’s what I remember.
I had just finished Primary Six, while my brother was already on his way to university. So his friends decided to organise one final farewell outing – a small fishing trip together. I guess my mum “suggested” that I be brought along. I expected my brother to object to having his kid brother tag along with him, but he didn’t seem to mind. At any rate, I was excited. I was a little scared of the worms, but I loved fishing. I loved reeling n the fish and watching them swim in styrofoam boxes filled with seawater.
I rarely saw my brother’s friends; they were much older than me, and my only contact with them was when we passed in the corridors at school or in the hallway of my home if they came over to hang out with my brother.
“All the stories that you’ve heard ...they’re lies.”
The day was calm and balmy, the water warm and inviting. Sitting alone at the front of the brown wooden junk, the wind seemed to glaze over my skin like a gentle greeting. There wasn’t another boat in sight, and the waves, small and playful, sparkled as soon as your eyes met them.
The fresh, salt-flavoured air filled my lungs, warming me from the inside. It was one of those days where you could lose track of time and sail on forever…
Of my brother’s group of friends, the only person I sort of knew was Ian Choi. Everyone at school knew him, if not personally, then at least by name. It was a name synonymous with excellence – in academics, in sports, even in character. He was Head Boy, captain of more than a few sports teams, founder of a handful of clubs, and a frequent volunteer at charity organisations. He aced his exams, graduated at the top of the cohort, and astoundingly managed to attain the notoriously elusive 1,600 SAT score on his first attempt. To cap it all, he was also simply a good person. He always had time for everybody.
“A champion of the underdogs” – this was how my maths teacher, Mr Teng, described him. Ian’s own story wasn’t well-known, but nevertheless widely speculated. As far as I knew, Ian’s childhood wasn’t easy. His father died young, leaving his mother to support them both, working two, three, and at times, four jobs. Even then, they were still dependent on welfare; to make ends meet, Ian had to work night shifts in fast-food restaurants.
“Despite the challenges he faced, he didn’t accept his lot in life. He worked hard, and never gave up,” Mr Teng told me once. “He didn’t have tutors or coaches to help him, but that didn’t stop him from achieving.”
I couldn’t help it: every time I heard someone talk about his achievements, I felt a pang of envy. His success only highlighted my own total lack of accomplishments and I admit I hated him a little for it. After all, I already had it much easier than he did, yet I had accomplished far less.
The boat came to a gradual halt.
“Here’s a good spot,” the boatman called out. There was a brief burst of activity as everyone got up and started readying the fishing rods. I went to grab my rod, some bait, and a Coke before heading back to the bow. To my surprise, I saw Ian sitting there.
“Hey!” he said as he noticed me.
“Hi,” I replied, probably a little shyly.
“You’re Peter’s brother, Benjamin, right?” I nodded.
“I’m Ian,” he said, offering me his hand.
He smiled as he spoke, a wide, genuine smile that showed all of his white teeth. He wore a white cotton T-shirt and a pair of knee-length grey shorts.
“You don’t mind me sitting here, right?” he added. I told him that I didn’t mind. So we sat next to each other as we checked our reels and tied the hooks and the weights. As usual, I couldn’t thread the hook properly.
“Hey, need a hand with that?” Ian asked, looking over at me. He was almost done – all that was left was to attach the bait. I passed my rod and the hook over.
“Here’s a trick my Dad taught me,” he said, before licking the end of the fishing line and threading it through the hook with ease.
“The saliva smoothens the end of the fishing line so it goes through easier,” he explained.
“Thanks, Ian,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it, man.”
In spite of myself, I wasn’t able to hate him. Unlike with my brother’s other friends, I found myself more or less at ease next to him. He was seven years older than I was, yet it felt like we were peers. Even when he offered to help, he didn’t make a big deal out of it, nor did he ever sound like he thought he was smarter than me (which he definitely was). He was as calm and breezy as the weather. Of all his many talents, perhaps his greatest was a propensity for making others feel like they mattered.
After attaching the baits, and casting our lines, we sat for a while in comfortable silence. All I could hear was the sound of the waves dancing gracefully and my brother and his friends chatting softly in the background. The boat bobbed and swayed gently on the water. They say it sometimes takes an eternity to catch a fish, but after an eternity, we still hadn’t caught anything. I had been hesitant to talk to Ian, but now that I was sitting next to him, I didn’t feel so awkward asking the questions I had longed to know the answer to.
“How are you so good at everything?”
It was a juvenile question, but at the time I truly wanted to know his secret formula.
“Me?” he laughed, “what are you talking about? I’m not good at anything.”
“But you’re Head Boy. And you’re excellent at sport. And your grades are always perfect!” I protested.
“That’s just what people say,” he replied. “In truth, it’s not as impressive as people make it out to be. But I know that doesn’t answer your question, so I’ll say this: You just need to focus, and believe in yourself. Sometimes, when I see my friends with all their achievements and all their opportunities, I doubt myself and think it’s impossible to succeed.”
He paused, and drank a mouthful of Coke. He seemed unsure whether or not to say more, but eventually spoke again.
“I don’t want to sound boastful, I really don’t ... but I had to work hard to create opportunities – I didn’t have many to start with. But it seems like you already have many opportunities open to you, so just seize the day and make the most of them.”
There was no arrogance, no false modesty in his voice. Yet his mind seemed to have wandered, traversing the waters far out towards the horizon. His voice was tinged with a streak of sadness.
I had many more questions, but thought I should probably change the subject.
“You’re pretty good with the fishing rod. You fish a lot?” I asked.
Looking back, I now realise that was probably the worst question I could have asked. Immediately, his face clouded over, his bright eyes dimming.
“My dad used to take me fishing,” he said softly.
I hesitated. Behind us, my brother and his other friends were completely oblivious, their voices floating away into the endless clear blue sky. There was a long pause. I wasn’t sure if I had upset him. He looked away into the sea. When he looked back at me, his eyes were stained with tears.
“All the stories you’ve ever heard about me are the good ones – the kid who went from rags to riches, who proved that hard work and dedication pays off. But all the stories that you’ve heard ... they’re lies. Everyone just loves a good underdog story, where the poor kid comes up and becomes the hero of the day. They make it sound so easy. But no one ever tells you the harsh truths, the blood, sweat, toil, and tears.”
He hadn’t raised his voice or showed any signs of anger, but there was a slight unevenness to his voice, a sense of urgency, as if he was desperate to be understood.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the rumours of my childhood, my dad leaving us, having to rely on welfare and financial aid, and having to work odd jobs to take care of my sister. It’s so hard to keep going when everything around you crumbles just as you fix it up.
“And the worst part is, people hate you for it. People think that everything you do is luck, accuse you of playing the ‘victim card’, and think that all you do is suck up to teachers and coaches. Everyone hates you because you’re successful.”
Behind us, I hear the hum of my brother and his friends chatting away, still unaware that Ian wasn’t with them.
“But no one understands. For me, trying hard isn’t a choice.”
He stared out at the sea, and after a moment, I turned and did the same. Time returned to normal, and the day passed by as pleasantly and languorously as it had begun.
After that day, I never looked at people like Ian the same way. Never again did I feel those pangs of jealousy. The fact that I had once felt that way filled me with shame.
I must have spoken to Ian a little more after that, but that’s all I can remember. The rest, the waves of time have lapped at, slowly, but surely.