A Short Story by Benjamin Ong Jia Ming

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Benjamin Ong Jia Ming was among the first batch of students to enter the V.I. in the new millennium, spending nearly a third of his life (so far) there from 2000 to 2006. Having just completed his STPM, he is currently teaching mathematics in his alma mater (after a brief stint as a biology teacher in the same place). His interests include poetry, photography, the natural sciences, philosophy, theology and, when inspired, writing.

While at the V.I., Benjamin spent more time (or at least put in more effort) outside school than in school, representing the V.I. in numerous literary competitions. He was one of the pioneer members of the V.I.'s Scrabble team, which went on to be one of the top two in the country for three consecutive years (SMK Sultan Abdul Samad of Petaling Jaya was a perennial rival). He was also the National Champion of the 2004 Scripture Union Bible Knowledge Postal Quiz.

Benjamin was a member of the debate team which won the Tan Sri Datuk Wira State Debate Cup in 2004, six years after the V.I. last did it in 1998, capping the team's win with the award for Best Debater. He also won the Tan Chee Khoon and Treacher Scholarships in 2000 and 2003 for Best Student in Form 1 and Form 4 respectively.

An indefatigable speaker, he also made history by becoming the V.I.'s first medallist in a speaking event (we've had many great actors) at the International School of Kuala Lumpur's annual South-East Asian Forensics Tournament when he won the Silver Medal for Impromptu Speaking in 2005. He returned the following year to take the Gold for Extemporaneous Speaking and to lead the V.I. to its best Forensics outing yet, beating every other school for first placing in the overall Sweepstakes Awards and winning the Rafidah Aziz Challenge Shield for Best Government School.

In his senior years, Benjamin wrote, edited and took photos for the Victorian Editorial Board, and helped develop the theme and concept for the Oak (80th) edition of The Victorian. He was also the Editor-in-Chief of the Seladang. He was the unofficial chronicler of Tun Dr Mahathir's talk/lecture when the Tun visited the V.I. in 2005, and also established himself as the V.I.'s most prolific shutterbug.

Benjamin's first success as a writer came when he was shortlisted for the IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award for Young Malaysians (for his short story, The Bonang), after which he chose to dabble in philosophy and opinion-oriented essays. Winning the MPH Search for Young Malaysian Writers was an especially meaningful experience for him because it marked a very welcome return to the short story scene after three years of absence, and because it would be his final victory as a student for the V.I.

Benjamin welcomes feedback and can be contacted at jiaming.ong@gmail.com.




 

Evanescent Shadows

Variations on a Theme of Thomas Eliot



by Benjamin Ong Jia Ming



Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph. And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

~T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding~


* * * * *

Like a fire alarm on what would otherwise be a peaceful watch in the night, the bell rings. Sixty seconds up; someone shouts, “Time!” Swift as a shadow, he lifts a piece of paper from the table, and saunters to a wooden block in the middle of a platform. The sheet is scrawled all over with words—a random mess to all but the mind of the one who crafted them out of nothingness. Immediately, a spotlight falls on this spectre on the stage, illuminating a room otherwise bathed in darkness.

* * * * *

I nearly didn’t miss the train. As I rushed onto the platform, the taillights of the last carriage faded away into the distance, and I found myself engulfed in the dust of time and tide. Truly, it waits, but man cannot bear time; he is inhospitable, and sends time off as soon as it comes. We would rather be ruined than changed by the currents of time. No one knew how to wait anymore; not in the city, not even in the country. But I did, or at least I thought I did. I was tired of a photographer’s busy life in the Grey Town, and took a fortnight’s retreat some thirty-one miles away from it, in the midst of open fields where no one else could come too close. I wanted to live in long exposure instead of continuous shutter for a while. But just as I was ready to return home, it seems the train wasn’t going to be merciful.

Gathering my breath from the debris of this disappointment, I resigned myself to a few more hours of vulnerability in the open air. It was a starry night and nothing stirred about the rustic train station, or so it seemed. A gentle breeze wafted into the cool night air, carrying a cookie-sweet fragrance off a young lady who could hardly have seen more than thirty years of life—about as old as me.

Sitting hunched in one corner of the wooden platform, her eyes were fixed intently on the track. Though I was burning with questions, I wasn’t sure if I should interrupt her reverie, lest I break a silence that should shatter the tranquil night. So I stood at the edge of the creaking planks, breathing in my last drafts of the halcyon country air. I thought of how quickly time seemed to pass, the last thirteen days disappearing like morning grass that withers in the evening. And then she spoke.

“Can you count the stars?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The stars—can you count them?”

“No, I—why?”

“Oh, it’s just that I’ve been waiting a long time for the train. It hasn’t come and I’ve run out of things to count. I’d count the dandelions in the fields around us, but that would mean I’d have to get off the platform and maybe miss the train.”

“One should’ve arrived about an hour ago. How long have you been here?”

“Two days. Two weeks. Two months? Who knows? I don’t keep track.”

“Then why are you still here?”

“Those weren’t my trains.”

“Oh.”

I studied her carefully: she seemed disillusioned with something. Perhaps, like me, she’d also travelled out of some busy town to hit the ‘pause’ button on an endless routine. She held a stack of thin booklets, and I could see from the cover of one that they were music scores.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“This? Music. Words and music. To sing.”

“Sounds nice. Are you a singer?”

“I was in a choir once. Played piano and conducted at times.”

“Not much of that in these parts.”

“I needed time off. Inspiration was running low, and what was once a joy became a burden, a job I had to do. I quit the choir; music drained me.”

“And have you found what you’re looking for out here?”

“A little. When you leave an oasis, it takes some time before you find another. Even beauty along the way, like desert flowers and fiery sunsets, cannot fully satisfy. I sometimes wonder if I was meant for more than this. It’s like I’m not home yet.”

“Where do you live?”

“A place they call the Bright Town. That’s where my address is, but it’s not home. At least, it’s not where I feel safe. Not when there’s light everywhere, like a football stadium. Here you can count the stars, even name each one.”

Maybe, I thought, the stars don’t demand the darkness, but darkness is required for the stars to shine forth their little light.

“When is your train coming?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Not yet, anyway. But I will when it does.”

“Don’t you have a ticket or something?”

“I’ll get one when I board.”

“When will that be?”

“Soon.”

Unsatisfied, I pressed her further. “But if you keep missing these trains, you’ll just waste your time standing around here. You won’t get anywhere.”

“Oh yes I will. Time isn’t like a train, you know. It doesn’t just disappear from a station. Every train I didn’t board still took me somewhere.”

I’ll admit I did not think of that. A decision unmade is no less potent than one made. Walt Whitman observed; When a defining moment comes along, either you define the moment, or it defines you. Many doors must have opened and closed for my fellow sojourner here, but she chose none of them. We are all afraid of making choices sometimes; some of us are afraid all the time. We’re afraid of where we might end up, what we might lose along the way. As a photographer, I just observe the action—no need to fan the flames.

“What do you fear losing most?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she replied nonchalantly. Then, with a voice which quavered ever so slightly, she continued, “Everything. Time can level overnight what it took a lifetime to build. Leaving a platform is like jumping off a cliff.”

“No.”

“Okay, maybe not. But even falling headlong from the third floor of a building is enough to kill.”

“Will a train ride do that?”

“I don’t know. In a moving train, the faces of a thousand passengers become a transient blur against a star-studded sky. They lose themselves, they forget who they are.”

Not just in a train, but also in a war, a queue, a census, I told myself. It occurred to me that she was probably hiding behind her apparent silence, maybe even behind her music. There were many untold stories beneath her impassive countenance. But there is something in a person’s eyes that cannot be hidden beneath any guise, and the agony abides beneath saccharine smiles.

“Tell me about your music,” I ventured.

“What about it?”

“Oh, anything. Everything. Like your experiences, what you enjoy about it… Any embarrassing moments?”

She sat thoughtfully for a moment, then with a twinkle in her eye, set down her scores and took a few steps in my direction. “There is one,” she said. “When I was nineteen, I went to see an orchestra perform. Before the concert started, the players set about tuning their instruments. Believe it or not, I actually thought they were playing the first piece, and nearly applauded at the end of the tuning!”

I laughed. “That’s funny.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s plain silly.”

“That’s what I meant.”

After a pause, I recollected an experience from my teenage days. “I had a friend who conducted the school choir. She once told them, ‘I don’t want to have to smile at you after scolding you. I feel so fake.’”

“That’s funny, in a sad and twisted way,” she said wistfully.

“You remind me of her.”

At that moment, the sky began to thunder. She looked up and, staring at the clouds as if there were words written in them, said, “When the clouds are stemmed, the wells are dry. Tears are like seasons, you know? Each time they come, they’re the same yet different. I can cry for the same reasons this year as I did last, but they’ll be different tears.”

Our griefs are sluiced away like winter in the torrents of spring, I thought. Or maybe they are fossilised forever beneath strata of resentment and hatred.

“I think my train is coming soon. I can hear it in the distance,” she said.

“How do you know? I don’t hear anything.”

“Not with your ears, you won’t. There’s a train coming nonetheless, as certainly as the thunder trudges towards us. It was nice meeting you.”

I nodded. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

As I think about that night, I wonder: does the passenger change the face of a station, or does the station change the passenger? In waiting, we found patience in the crawling hours, and were none the worse for wear when our trains arrived. I never saw her again after that, but on that platform, time stood still. Time is no train, but ephemeral moments of opportunity come every now and then, swallowing the gruelling pauses in between. The moment of action is now—the fleeting ‘present’ where time touches eternity. Voices call us off our platforms; will we follow?

Our journey is between two shores, and on the dark waters along the way, we never really know who we are. Just before her train arrived, I gingerly lifted a lens out of my bag and attached it to the camera’s body. Looking up at her, I asked, “May I?”

“Sure.”

The station was lit with fireflies and stars, but I could only see her through the lens darkly; perhaps it takes more than a lens to see a person. Amidst the rumbling of the tracks and the roar of the train’s headlights, I composed the shot and, as if on cue, pressed the shutter just as the doors were flung open.

* * * * *

Like stars on a clear night, tiny lights cling to the ceiling, illuminating the speaker. The stage—a platform upon which the traveller stands, no matter how weary and fearful, or even tearful—is silent, and the murmur of a restless audience descends onto the podium, like a train chugging off into the distance. Yet the emptiness reverberates with the music and mirth of myriad conversations, heard forever in the halls of remembrance and regret.

“Testing mike, one, two, three.” The auditorium echoes with anticipation. He adjusts his notes, swallows, takes a deep breath… and begins. “Ladies and gentlemen…”






NEWS
Saturday December 2, 2006



Ong receiving his prize from Adibah Amin.

Writing skills come to the fore

Story and photo by SALINA KHALID

NOTHING is impossible if we love what we are doing and that was especially true for Benjamin Ong, 19.

The Upper Six student from the Victoria Institution was announced the first prize winner for Category B in the MPH Search for Young Malaysian Writers 2006.

Despite being in the science stream, the eldest of three siblings has proven that he, too, can be a creative writer.

“It is about my three passions – photography, trains and T.S. Eliot,” said Ong.

Besides keeping a blog where he can keep his personal thoughts and his creative work, Ong loves reading poetry from T.S. Eliot, especially his masterpiece, Four Quartets.

Ong’s short story entitled Evanescent Shadows is about a photographer who notices a girl at a train platform. She seems to be waiting for something yet lets the trains pass by her. The story touches more than mere time –it talks about decisions and philosophy.

“Most of the dialogue in the story is from real-life conversations that have taken place,” he said.

Ong received RM2,000, RM2,500 worth of book vouchers, books worth RM700 and stationery worth RM400.

The second place in the same category which was opened to those aged between 16 and 19 went to Lee Jia Hui, 17, from the International School KL for his story entitled Indian Barber Haircut.

Alison Lo walked away with the third prize for her story In the Hands of Time.

Meanwhile the Category A (those aged between 13 and 15) saw Lim Wei Yun from Sekolah Menengah Uplands, Penang as first prize winner with Cheah Ai Xin of SMJK Chung Ling and Priya Rajendran of Sekolah Seri Cempaka as second and third prize winner s respectively.

The second place winner received RM1,000 and RM1,500 worth of MPH book vouchers while the third walked home with RM500 and RM1,000 worth of book vouchers in addition to books and stationery.

Winners will also receive a one-day writers training workshop and have their stories published in a book.

The prize presentation was held at 1 Utama Shopping Centre on Monday.

The contest, in its third year, attracted more than 2,000 participants.

The MPH Search 2006, which ended on July 31, required participants to write a short story using a context or situation that illustrate the element of time.

In his speech, competition head judge Lim Soon Heng said despite receiving less number of entries this year (last year the competition received 2,500 entries) they were higher quality articles.

“The entries this year are stronger, especially from the older participants in Category B.

“Not only are the writers able to engage in writing interesting stories with time as an element, they are able to deal with the philosophical or conceptual question of time in interesting and thoughtful ways,” he said.

All entries were read by MPH Bookstore’s internal committee and short-listed.

MPH Bookstores Sdn Bhd chief operating officer Patricia Chen said the MPH Search 2006 was aimed at encouraging youngsters to read and write.




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