BAME Prize 2017: 7-Eleven by Henry Wong

They slipped past the sleeping dragons just as the call to mosque rang out over Petaling Jaya. Ru imagined the dragons on a shoreline, their skin – green and yellow – which hung loosely, like his pillow case, around their short arms. He closed the book and traced the name on the cover: K – E – A – T – S.

He mouthed it back to himself: there was no one at school with this name. There was no one in the neighbourhood even. The first name – John – was more familiar. There was a Jon without an h in his class and there was a King John in one of his textbooks. He rolled over in bed and thought of Madeline and Porphyro on the other side of the pillow. It felt cool and they felt exciting and far away.

Their land sounded like clipped accents. It looked like misty fields and smelt like – he did not know what it smelt like. Maybe like the western food stall at market that fried indeterminate breakfast food next to stalls of kon lon mee and chicken rice.

He pictured Keats sitting down in a field with a grease-drenched crumpet. A cow stood behind him. Mr Yoong, the proud owner of WESTERN FOOD EXPRESS, fried a hamburger next to the cow. Keats wrote, the cow mooed.

Something bristled in Ru’s road. The moo curved upwards into a Malay accent. The mosque call crept through the streets like a stray cat, before blurting out onto the high ways. It was a yellowish call. It muted the neon shop fronts; pharmacies became altars, shopping marts softened into sanctity. Ru looked out and saw his home town pull itself together to answer the call. And he slunk back into his bed: Whatever.

The call stopped and Ru’s feet touched the floor. Linoleum – the word was foreign but he had no idea where it came from. It sounded like outer space. Lin – oh! – liam. His mother said it was easier to clean.

The school bus came when he was still reading Keats, half way through a poem about a vase. He put it down next to Time and called for his sister.

‘Do you like my new shoes?’ she asked.

They were the same white plimsolls their mother had bought them since they were nine.

‘I do. Come on, or we’ll be late.’

The school bus rattled past their friends’ houses. Two 7-Elevens and three pharmacies later, Andrew climbed up the folding steps.

‘Hey, did you do the maths?’

‘Yes,’ Ru said and reached in his bag for his notebook.

‘Thanks.’

Ru fiddled with the latch on the window. Andrew looked up from copying his homework. His fringe dangled in front of his eyes. A strand fell accidently, perfectly. He must have just showered.

‘Can you come over to mine tonight?’

‘Mother said no,’ he said in a mock English accent.

‘And why,’ Andrew said, in a better attempt at the accent, ‘did mother say that?’

‘Because I have to work.’

‘You’re such a mummy’s boy.’

‘It’s because I’m a mummy’s boy that you’re copying my homework right now.’

Andrew laughed. He jabbed Ru in the ribs with his Biro and they both laughed.

Outside the window, a man was chopping chickens’ heads for lunch. The splattered across the tree stump – a makeshift chopping board – and dripped down onto a crushed Pepsi can. Ru heard each splattering echo as it fell onto the crumpled aluminium. Split – ding, splint – dang.

‘Why does he look so happy when he does that?’ Yuan asked.

Ru shrugged. He man caught the man’s eye. He didn’t look happy, he looked like he just had to do it.

There were two weeks of school left. Two weeks until summer started in full. Long days at the beach club, and entire days spent at friends’ houses. In summer, everything looked like a music video. That’s how summer works.

The pool was its bluest, the inflatables never burst. They rode bikes around the neighbourhood, and the gardeners all drank Pepsi on the porch. They would spend entire afternoons lying on the floor, watching VH1 with the air conditioning on high. Everything was utopia in Petaling Jaya.

At lunch, they sat under a half-collapsed parasol and watched the schoolyard. They ran scenes. The year belows were playing football. The girls were playing jump rope. Loners wandered about, their noses in Japanese comics. Andrew rolled over on his stomach. He was reading Ghost in the Shell which everyone’s older brother had read. It was now their turn to pass it round.

‘Is that good?’ Ru asked.

‘Sure, I guess. Hacking is weird.’

One of the girls had brought in speakers that were hooked up to another girl’s iPod. Kelly Clarkson’s : ‘yeah, yeah, since you been gone’ rolled around again and again, sounding better each time.

‘I think you should stop reading poetry.’

Ru laughed. He picked up some grass and threw it at him. They shrugged at each other.

‘By the way, the end-of-year ball is soon.’

‘Who do you think you’ll ask?’ he said to Andrew.

‘No clue. Maybe one of them will ask us.’

They looked over at the girls, who were mouthing the lyrics. Ye – ah – yeah. Ye – ah – yeah.

‘Maybe.’

‘What about Marie?’

‘Yeah, probably.’

The ball was only really cool if you were not old enough to go but they would still go because everyone did. And everyone – even if only for half an hour – had a good time.

The bell rang out so Ru said nothing, though they trudged back to class with renewed inevitability.

Andrew hummed: ‘We started out cool.’

Ru: ‘But it was all pretend.’

And together: ‘Yeah, yeah, since you been gone.’

He jabbed Ru in the ribs.

‘Hey, that’s twice today.’

‘Are you counting?’

They watched the final penalty: an intake of breath, and then uproar.

‘Shall we go out on Saturday night?’

‘Yeah, where?

The rest of the day rolled out indeterminately until they got to double English. Professor Huang taught them History and English. His clothes fit differently to all the other teachers; they were a little loose, a little old. But he was Ru’s favourite teacher. He was like a teacher from the movies. Professor Huang would place books on his desk with notes in the front cover. ‘You will like this one!’

Today they were reading ‘The Listeners’ by Walter De La Mare.

‘By who?’ Andrew said after Professor Huang had written the title on the board.

Professor Huang spoke more slowly for Andrew – though everyone listened more closely: ‘Walter – De – La – Mare.’

‘Who – is – that?’ Andrew said.

‘An English poet from Twickenham. He wrote a lot for children but this is his most famous poem.’

‘From where?’

‘Twickenham.’

Andrew looked around; no one else seemed to have heard of this Twickenham.

Professor Huang picked Fei to read. Andrew groaned; Fei was a bad reader. When most people had been forming full sentences, Fei was still grappling with the alphabet. No one knew whether he had mastered it yet. Ru felt bad for his classmate; he did not like reading.

But it was one of Professor Huang’s missions: to make Fei read so often that it became bearable. It had not worked and it was spring. He began and stumbled over the second word. Andrew looked at him and rolled his eyes into another dimension.

“Is there anybody there?”said the travailer,’ Fei said.

‘It’s “traveller”, not “travailer”. What is a “travailer”?’ Andrew said.

They started to fight. Ru put his fingers in his ears and read the poem to himself. He paused over unfamiliar collections of words – ‘thronging the faint moonbeams’ – and traced them with his hand over the desk. He learnt that way, which felt both physical and chemical. It was like falling asleep with a textbook in the bed. What he didn’t understand, he sensed. Like the alternating rhyme. Door, floor. Head, said. Sill, still. Thump, thump: Fei had hit Andrew.

The entire class had broken out by the time he found out who was listening – no one, he thought? But the lesson was now a lost cause. Professor Huang was swamped. Ru slipped out the classroom with a copy of the poem.

He walked down the corridors, all silent because classes were still going on. It was a special feeling, to look into classes when you did not have to work. It made Ru feel light. Watching classmates take tests he didn’t have to worry about was one of his great pleasures.

He sat in the sun and read about English lakes. Keats was obsessed with water. But not the water Ru was used to. He knew long stretches of the East coast. Beach clubs where they kept bears and monkeys. It was not like the pool at the club either, with its rectangular edges.

Keats’s waters were dangerous. They were murky and misty. They were swamps and Ru wanted to roam them on horseback. They were filled with lost girls and foolish boys. He wondered where he would fit among them. He still didn’t know what it would smell like.

Shakira played on the TV above the bar.

‘I like her.’ Andrew said.

Ru looked up. They were drinking milkshakes at a new American diner in the mall. The air conditioning was next level; the red leather was cold against his thighs. Shakira looked sad.

‘She has a sad voice.’

‘I know what you mean.’

‘Where’s she from?’

‘I don’t know. I think she’s Spanish,’ Andrew said.

‘Are you excited about next year?’ Ru asked.

‘Not really. Boarding school is weird. And I’ll have to deal with so many English accents.’

‘It’s worse for me in Scotland. I tried watching a Scottish police show called Taggart to try and understand them but I had no idea what they were saying.’

‘At least your dad went there though.’

Ru nodded and looked into his milkshake. Pink ice cream floated at the bottom. Shakira had stopped, and Maroon 5 had come on screen.

‘I like this song,’ Andrew said.

Ru liked it too. He wondered if they played it in Scotland.

Ru got home and did his homework – quadratic equations and fault lines – in front of VH1. He was colouring in San Francisco’s crisis points (playing God was fun with colouring pencils) and flicking between music channels.

There was a re-run of Dashboard Confessional’s MTV Unplugged. Everyone in the audience knew the words, even the ones that made no sense. Ru watched them watching the singer – with his black shirt and red long-sleeved top – as he looked angry, then sad, then angry again.

His father came home after dinner and asked Ru to walk with him in the garden.

‘The gardener has done a good job this year,’ his father said.

His father’s sentences sounded newly funny: a different structure, not like Walter or Keats. But he eased into his father’s sentences more easily. They sounded like car rides and after-school trips to the club.

His father was always well dressed: crisp white shirts, cream linen trousers. Ru’s mother said: ‘You never know when he might be needed for something.’ But Ru thought that his father would dress just as smartly for an appointment-less week.  His mother would place endless clean shirts at the top of the laundry pile in the maid’s room. His short sleeves revealed tanned skin, which always seemed to have been freshly washed. The smell of his father in the early evening was his favourite. When his father spoke to him about more serious things, in a quieter voice, he could smell the whiskey. It smelt perfect together. His sister once told him that their father smelt like the outside coming in, which made Ru smile. He was the opposite of air conditioning.

‘How are you feeling about Scotland, son?’

‘Fine.’

‘Are you nervous?’

‘A little.’

‘I understand. But I had some of the best years of my life at boarding school. And you won’t have to take the school bus any more.’

‘I like the school bus.’

His father laughed.

‘It’s hot and smelly.’

‘I get to see everyone there.’

‘Well, enjoy it for the next two weeks. Are you sad to leave PJ?’

‘Sort of. Do they have 7-Eleven in Scotland?’

‘No.’

His father started to reel off everything else they had in Scotland. Ru stared at his mother’s hibiscuses. There were more pink flowers than lilac this year. He wondered if they had hibiscus in Scotland. And then he looked at the sky and saw it was all orange crush and wondered about nothing at all.

During that Friday’s homework club, he sat with a blank piece of paper and a Biro, fully loaded. He had read Keats until 2am last night. He would write: poetry, or something like it. But nothing had gone in that day in class, and now nothing was going out. He gave up and read a Betty and Veronica comic instead of doing his chemistry.

The disco planning committee met after school. Andrew had signed them up to try to talk to the girls. Ru sat next to Marie. Andrew opened a sprite and Ru took the first sip.

‘All yours now.’

‘Thanks,’ Andrew said, and hit his hand. ‘I wonder what teacher has the misfortune to plan the disco this year.’

‘It can’t be Mrs Wong again. I think the year-aboves drove her out of Kuala Lumpur last year.’

‘I heard she lives in a village in Sabah now,’ Marie said and Ru laughed a little too loud.

Professor Huang walked in.

‘Dear God,’ Andrew said, ‘what is wrong with Professor Huang’s stars?’

Professor Huang must draw the shortest of straws.

‘Class, we need a banner for the ball.’

‘Why?’ Andrew said.

‘To show what we are dancing about. I think we need a theme for this year, so that we can play from there. Last year’s didn’t have any direction. Can anyone think of a good suggestion?’

‘Happiness.’ Marie said.

‘I think that may be too frivolous.’

‘How is happiness frivolous?’ she asked.

‘Because things are hard for some people.’

‘So we have to pick something that everyone likes but also has?’ Marie asked.

Professor Huang nodded.

‘Lungs.’ Andrew said.

‘I think that is a little … abstract.’ Professor Huang said.

‘Sir, if your lungs are abstract, I think you should talk to nurse,’ Andrew said.

Marie laughed and Ru felt weird: immediately jealous, and then a little sad. He read the back of the Sprite can for the rest of the meeting.

He slept at Andrew’s that night. Sleepovers still felt like freedom. They had got a copy of Scream 3 from Chen’s older brother, Yuan, who was eighteen and pretty cool. He rode a motorbike and would steal fake Rolexes from the night market. Ru used to see him smoking behind the cinema in the car park. If their neighbourhood had a James Dean, it would be Yuan. Sometimes he would stretch and his leather jacket would reveal a smooth, arched back. Heavy metal played when he walked into the living room. Chen’s family had a shag carpet, and Yuan stomped on it like no one else did.

Andrew’s parents were out at dinner, and they were watching on the main TV downstairs. Ru made the popcorn. It was uncomfortable to have the film up so big.

‘Buffy dies in the first three minutes, by the way.’ Andrew’s older sister said, chewing gum and breaking Chen’s heart. Chen had been in love with Diana since he was six.

‘How does she do that?’ Andrew asked.

‘Just by twirling her hair.’ Ru said.

‘Huh? I meant ruining the film,’ Andrew said.

They sat in silence while Buffy was murdered.

‘Wait, that’s not Buffy,’ Andrew said.

‘No, she dies in the second one. She’s in the sorority.’ Chen said.

All three of them said ‘oh yeah’ and watched as the blonde lady who was not Buffy died.

Her dress kept falling down and she kept screaming louder, like all American girls do. Andrew’s leg touched his on the sofa, and Ru stared at the screen. The lady thought her boyfriend was the murderer. But then he died too. There was blood, Ru stayed still, Andrew did too.

Chen had to pause the film to take a call from his mum so they made more popcorn. Andrew leant against the kitchen top, his shirt dangling above his navel, his smile pulled wide. How long have you been my friend, Ru thought, and known nothing about me?

‘That blonde girl has been in something else, hadn’t she?’ Andrew said.

After the film, they drove around in Andrew’s brother’s Toyota. His brother had got back late from his job at the video shop at the shopping mall. ‘Where are we going?’ someone asked. ‘Nowhere in particular,’ Andrew’s brother said. They stopped off for food at a 7-Eleven. Everyone wanted pretzels but Ru just wanted soda.

Ru felt light-headed. They had not eaten dinner and the popcorn had been too salty. He looked up at the block of shops. Paradise looked like a neon sign that said ‘Cool Soda at Cooler Prices’. It tasted cold, like his father’s hand. And he couldn’t help but smile when he ordered an extra-large portion. It would make him sick (this was part of the fun) but he still licked every last crush of ice. The four boys – Andrew, Ru, Andrew’s brother and Chen sat on the steps outside and ate pretzels and drank until they got brain freezes.

‘How come you didn’t leave Malaysia for sixth form?’ Ru asked Andrew’s brother.

‘I wasn’t smart enough.’

Chen laughed: ‘Neither am I. My parents didn’t want to waste the money on me. These two however …’

Andrew’s brother and Chen looked sideways at Ru and Andrew. There was silence. Taxis the colour of Juicy Fruit sped past; ‘This Love’ played from the 7-Eleven behind them. Ru looked down the avenue. If none of this inspires you, he thought, you’re doing it wrong.

He slept late the next day, and worked for the rest of Sunday. In the evening, he read some Keats and thought about homework club and decided to write. At first, he wrote a little, and then he wrote a lot. He was quite sure it wasn’t good, but he still tried. Outside, the neighbour’s dog barked. It was a ratty mongrel, half-Alsatian, half-something else. He did not even know if it had a name. It spent half its time looking resigned, and half its time trying to escape its chains. It barked the entire night, but Ru slept through it all.

On Monday, in the schoolyard, Marie read through Ru’s poetry. It had fallen out of his bag after the disco planning committee and she had not laughed immediately, so Ru agreed to go through it with her. Besides, she was good at English and he wanted someone else to read it.

‘You know not everything has to be boring?’

‘Huh?’

‘Like, just because something’s serious doesn’t mean it has to be dull,’ she said.

‘Got it.’

Ru liked Marie. She said film and not movie and wore plimsolls not trainers. She said hello, not hey. Sometimes he dreamed up conversations between them. ‘I want to make movies,’ she said. ‘I want to make films inside your head.’

She was going to study in Australia next year. And when they talked about next year, Marie would speak in a mock accent. ‘G’day may-te.’ She looked through his poetry again. She stopped and looked around. The year-belows had stopped a football match to fight. She sighed and twirled a ponytail. ‘What are you inspired by?’ she asked.

‘Keats.’

‘The English guy?’

‘Yes.’

‘There’s your problem. Everything is so distant.’

‘Keats isn’t distant! He’s universal.’

‘Is he? I’ve never been to England.’

‘Well, neither have I,’ he said. He felt awkward: ‘But it sounds like a nice place. And Keats writes beautifully about it.’

‘But it sounds like you’re trying to be him.’

‘Well, what are you inspired by?’

‘I’m not trying to write.’

‘Yes, but you dance, and you were in the school play.’

‘Paris Hilton’s 21st birthday dress.’

He looked at her as she told him about its shapes and how it sparkled and how her hair was cut for the party. He laughed and she said stop so he did, but he thought about her the whole way home.

He imagined him and Marie sitting at a diner booth in an American movie:

‘Did that mean nothing to you?’

She dragged on a cigarette:

‘Honey, nothing means much to me.’

A song plays from the speaker and Marie gets up and swings round:

‘Uptown girl, she’s been living in an uptown world’

That evening, he visited Lamia in ancient Greece. Lay – me – ah, he said out loud. A lamia sounded like something you could find in the rainforest. He wondered if Keats had visited Sabah. He looked up ‘rainforest’ in the back of the book but only found ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it out loud’.

He looked to ‘O’ for ‘orang-utan’ but only found ‘odes’. There were so many odes – on Grecian urns, Indolence, Melancholy, and one to Psyche. These words meant little – did Keats like psychotherapy? He found one he had missed: Ode to a Nightingale. Nightingales must be what the English call nightjars. His father had told him that there were only pigeons in England.

Was a nightingale a nightjar? He had always loved nightjars; he had begged his parents for one. But they had told him they would never see it, because the bird would sleep in the day when Ru was up and only wake up at night when the whole family was asleep. Still, he had read all about them – how they are nocturnal, and how they are called goatsuckers because they used to take milk from goats. They sounded hysterical and calming and violent and loving to Ru, all at the same time.

He turned to the Keats poem:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense –

It was a little much, Ru thought. He sat at his desk, looking out over the garden onto the road. He couldn’t write a thing.

He typed into his computer: ‘Paris Hilton 21st birthday dress.’ He tapped images and a million glittering mini dresses returned. Marie was right: it worked. Ru thought it looked like moonlight. He scrolled through pages for ten minutes; Paris Hilton fell out of clubs, walked onto dance floors and collapsed in taxis. He turned back to his pad.

My history is not your history,

And that’s how it should be,

He had written that – the entire thing! Two whole lines! – and felt pleased. He let it graze. He felt nervous to push it out too far: another line might wound it. He felt he had done enough for the day. It felt a little sincere, though sincerity was something he could afford to work on.

He wrote for another half hour, about rainforests and shopping malls and 7-Eleven slushies. It was liberating. The words rushed out of him – somewhere inside his heart? That felt gloopy – but he felt much lighter. It was a jump from madness to control, from feelings to thought. Though he wondered if it was not strictly Romantic. He could not imagine Keats searching for Paris Hilton online.

The final Thursday of school went slowly, like the sad part of a pop song. He jumped when someone tapped him on shoulder and then smiled when he saw it was Marie.

‘Want some gum?’

He nodded and she took out a stick out of her pocket. It was pink and tasted of strawberry and soap.

‘Want to get out of here?’

‘I have Geography class.’

She looked at him like pretty girls looked in movies: Really, dolt?

They snuck out a back entrance and went to the bleachers by the track.

‘What’s that book you’re always reading?’

‘It’s Keats.’

She looked at him and her eyes said: Oh him.

‘Okay, fine. I’ll give him another try. Hand it over.’

She took the book from his hands and felt the spine with her fingers, then sniffed it.

‘What are you doing?’

‘I like the smell of them. Which is your favourite poem?’

‘“The Eve of St. Agnes.” Page 132.’

She started to read: ‘Ah bitter chill it was.’ She raised herself up on to a bar and flung her head back. The sun shone through her ponytail like a sad music video about summer.

Keats puffed out of her mouth like smoke rings. Why does it sound so good from her mouth? He wondered if anyone had said ‘azure’ like Marie.

And now it spun, like candy. Words whirred through the air, but it didn’t make it sticky. He scratched and he sniffed; it felt like a photo shoot with a pop star. Baby, baby, Madeline, come with me. Baby, baby, Porphyro, you know my dad would kill me.

Marie left at 5 for the last gymnastics class of term. Ru wandered back to school to clear out some books from his locker. He swung his backpack around his shoulder and stalked the corridors for what he realised would be one of the last times. He enjoyed school so much when it was empty. It wasn’t completely empty: Fei was skulking about for remedial chemistry and Professor Huang was still in his classroom.

Ru knocked: ‘Hi, Professor Huang.’

‘Hello, Ru.’

‘What’s up?’

‘Not much, I’m just filing some grades.’

‘How did I do?’

‘You’ll see. Are you looking forward to summer?’

‘It’s just summer.’

‘Do you know where you’re going next year?’

‘Scotland.’

‘That’s far away.’

‘I know.’

‘Do not just contribute envy to this world.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘What it says. There’s no point in being successful just to make other people envious.’

‘Professor Huang, you sound like a Lifetime movie.’

‘There’s a reason why those are so popular!’

‘I’m not sure I ever want to leave this town.’

A list of everything Ru thought that Professor Huang should have said:

  • ‘That’s what you say now.’
  • ‘You’ll look back and wonder why you ever thought that.’
  • ‘I know it must seem daunting, but there will be so many opportunities in the next year.’

But all Professor Huang said was: ‘Maybe you shouldn’t.’

Ru looked at his teacher and felt a locker slam.

‘Thanks for organising the ball, Professor Huang.’

The door slammed shut on the scene and Ru heard a soda bottle pop in a classroom down the corridor. The air conditioning hummed steadily.

He thought about what Professor Huang had said as he sat by his desk that night. None of his words seemed fresh any more. What was he contributing to the world?

At the moment: precisely nothing. The sentences that filled his head while he was on the bus disappeared. They were always present in class but now they were elsewhere. He jotted down words he liked – howling, heaving, jocular.

He read more of the poems that Professor Huang had given them for the summer. Wordsworth and Scott and Coleridge. He read about country fields and knights and shivering children and, at his desk in Petaling Jaya, felt nothing. He read about Christabel and felt a chill of uninterest.

He thought about Marie and Paris Hilton and 7-Eleven and started to write. He thought about Andrew lip-syncing to Kelly Clarkson and bad Chinese gangster movies and continued. He thought about leaving home and Scream 3 and milkshakes with Andrew. And deep down it became clear that Wordsworth was not his poet.

His dad had sprayed cologne on him for the dance on Friday. Andrew’s older brother picked them up in his Toyota. ‘I found his internet history on the family computer,’ Andrew whispered to Ru when he got in.

In the hall, Marie stared at him under a banner that read ‘ACEPTANCE.’ She walked over, dragged him to the drinks table and poured them both Coke.

‘You look nice.’

‘Thanks,’ Ru said: ‘You look nicer.’

‘I’m supposed to.’

He looked around – Fei had found someone to dance with, Andrew was eyeing up the punchbowl. An orange ‘C’, which he had painted, had fallen from the banner. It was lying under a curtain.

‘Let’s go outside,’ Marie said.

‘No, let’s dance,’ he said, surprising both of them.

‘I just had the wildest image,’ Marie said as they walked to the dance floor.

‘What?’

‘We’re at a dinner table and arguing.’

‘That sounds nice?’

‘It’s something,’ she said as she looped her arms around his neck.

‘It’s just something I imagine old people do.’

He held her and looked around the gymnasium. He had had classes here since he was seven. He used to leave through the corner exit and walk home in white tennis shoes and blue gym kit. Marie said something but he couldn’t hear. Andrew was drinking punch and pinching his nose: Ru laughed and caught his eye. Andrew mouthed: ‘Strong stuff.’ He began to dance and Ru wanted to join him.

In the schoolyard, it was still warm; something finer than hope was in the air. Ru felt it. The stars were lively and the fields – the sprinklers had just been on – were slippery. He ran in circles and thought of boarding school. The world was spinning but he did not feel dizzy. He felt like he was growing out of something but he could not yet tell what.

He lay down and looked up at the stars. He wondered if this was a cliché; had anyone looked at the stars like him before? He did not care. He stared at them with new meaning, his meaning. He felt fixed; they felt like roller coasters. Unmoveable structures that rushed about.

Clee-shay. He handled the word like candied pineapple, tipping it over so that its sugar fell everywhere. Clee-shay.

If he was really quiet and lay still, he thought he could hear the nightingale. But that may have just been a late night hawker outside school.

So he chose to believe it was a nightingale. And that it was singing for him. He wondered if a nightingale had ever sung for anyone in PJ. He was probably the first one. He smiled; it hummed. The sky ached. It must be aching, he thought. Each of those stars weighing it down, towards his body. Towards his stomach which he could feel rising and falling, rushing and falling. It felt tight but he liked it. He felt every tremor of the playing fields.

He concentrated; what would Keats think of this scene, of his playing fields? Of the sky. He would write clever lines about the stillness of the air or the din of grasshoppers. Did they have grasshoppers in England? Maybe they just had birds that came out at night and mourned sad things.

He did not move immediately, he would not. He took in the sky, and the rattle of the hawker and it may have only lasted four seconds but it felt enough for him to remember forever.

A slow song was playing in the gymnasium: ‘Telling tales and biting nails are gone.’

The gym doors opened and Andrew walked out. He crossed the field and asked him what he was doing.

‘Just taking it all in.’

‘The football pitch? I can tell you I beat your ass here repeatedly when we were kids.’

‘We’re still kids.’

Andrew laughed: ‘We are leaving the motherland this year. We’re growing up.’

He sat down and stretched his legs out next to Ru.

‘It was Kelly Rutherford, by the way,’ Andrew said.

‘Huh?’

‘Who died in Scream 3. The girl who wasn’t Buffy. I looked her up.’

‘Why on earth are you still thinking about that now?’

‘Just tying up loose ends.’

Ru looked at him. His skin looked orange in the gymnasium’s glow, his hair a deep purple. Andrew brushed his fringe out of Ru’s face. He smiled – a half smile he had never seen before – and mouthed: What?

Ru slunk home, the road was short and the path clear. No one was up. Chained dogs slept in front lawns, unblinking. The sky threatened to fall in once, just as he looked up at it on his street corner. It had been clear all week, but he was sure it would start to rain. It didn’t but it scared him; the possibility that everything would end, and end heavily.

The neighbour’s light was on and the dog slept peacefully. From the road, Ru saw that they had made a bed for him out of an old car seat. The dog, for the first time in his sad, mixed-up life, looked happy.

Home reappeared and his gates opened like one of Keats’s semi colons, connected to the outer world but an entrance to somewhere safer. He passed his mother’s hibiscus and father’s cars. The front door unlocked more easily still, and the door within that needed only a firm push.

The floor was quiet under his now bare feet – he had kicked his shoes off in the utility room. He hurried up the stairs, where there was the most danger of his parents waking up, but there was still no sound. He slipped past his sister’s bedroom – and saw her sleeping in some moonlight, a tiring evening’s worth of play worn across her face.

His own room was quiet. A brochure for boarding school was propped open next to his bed. This morning’s water glass was still there and bubbles had filled up the bottom. He lay still and thought of the garden. The hibiscus opened and shut and began to bud again in his head. He slept with the window closed and the book open.

 7-Eleven by Henry Wong 

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