Second Best Friends
By Judith Huang
November meant monsoon rain and exams. November rain came in torrents, hammering the roofs insistently and spilling down the pipes and rushing through the gutters. Sometimes it rained for days on end without letting up. When it did, mornings smelled particularly fresh and clean.
The rain pummelled Julie's umbrella, staining spots on her pinafore dark blue, forming transparent beads on the cartoon dinosaurs on her backpack. The little five-stone beanbags her mother had sewn for her to give Vanessa were nestled deep in the pocket of her pinafore. Would Vanessa like them? She could feel them bounce against the side of her thigh with every step. They were purple, Vanessa's favourite colour, and maybe, just maybe, they would help Julie become Vanessa's best friend.
Julie could hear her white school shoes squeak as she walked across the school field to get to the hall for assembly. She knew there would be grass stains on them, which her maid would have to white out when she got home, that there would be little slivers of grass stuck to the canvas that she would try to pick off while sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor of the assembly hall later. There were even a few grass seeds wheedling their way into her socks, which were going to itch terribly, and her feet were going to be slightly damp all day. But she was running late and the second school bell was about to ring, so she had to cut across the wet grass to save time.
The school bell rang, and Julie ran up the steps two at a time to get to the second floor. Huge fans whirred from the pillars of the assembly hall, the only noise apart from the rustling of books. She quickly made her way to her class. She was right at the back of the row because she was just in time. Vanessa was about eight girls in front of her, so she couldn't give the five stones to her. Everyone was buried in their textbooks. The exams were only a week away.
The third bell faded. "Sedia!" said the head prefect in a clear voice, and the students stood at attention, stomping their feet and letting their hands fall to their sides. The national anthem blared over the speakers as about a thousand girls started singing and the limp red and white flag climbed slowly up the pole. There was no wind, and the fans were blowing in the wrong direction, so you couldn't see the stars and crescent moon.
After the school song and the pledge, Mrs Loh, the school principal, spoke into her microphone. She cut a slender figure in her cheongsam, and her short hair was curly and streaked with grey. The small eyes behind her delicate frameless glasses were vivid and intelligent.
"Girls, I have an exciting announcement for all Primary Two students. As you know, in Primary Three you will be placed into classes based on your exam results, according to your ranking. I'm happy to announce that the top class next year will be going to Australia during the March holidays! I hope this will be an additional motivation for you to study hard for your exams!"
A murmur of excitement passed through the Primary Two section of the assembly hall, while Primary Three students grumbled that they had missed out on such a prize. Australia! A cold country, where there were apple trees and kangaroos and koala bears like the little clothespin ones cousins gave you as proof that they had gone on holiday there. And to go with all your classmates, on a school trip!
Imagine going to Australia with Vanessa… They could share a hotel room, like sisters. There might even be cable TV in the hotel, and they could watch Cartoon Network together. There must be all kinds of different flavours of ice cream in Australia! They could pet a kangaroo, hold a koala… Julie tried to catch Vanessa's eye. Vanessa turned back to look at her. Yes, her smile must mean she wanted the same things! But would she share a room with her, or with Carol?
Vanessa was not Julie's partner when they lined up to walk back to their classrooms because Vanessa was quite a bit shorter than her. She often wished she was just a little shorter so they could both be the same height, but sadly she was one of the tallest girls in class.
Vanessa wasn't Julie's best friend, a fact that rankled quite a bit. She was only her second-best friend, even though Julie would have become best friends with her in a heartbeat. Vanessa's best-best friend was Carol, who wasn't even as smart as Julie, even though she was prettier and lived in a big house, on landed property.
Vanessa was liked by everybody. She had an attractive personality. "Attractive personality" had been one of the spelling words of the weekly spelling test early in the year, and ever since Julie learned the phrase, she had thought it described Vanessa perfectly. She had even written it out in one of her letters to Vanessa that they exchanged every day: "Dear Vanessa, I think you have an attractive personality, and that's why you're my second-best friend! Stay cool and funky, your second-best friend, Julie."
Vanessa laughed easily and often, would always share her snacks at recess, and was the best at zero-point – the skipping game you played with a huge loop of connected rubber bands – and art. Vanessa could draw anything, including all the Sailor Moon characters, and always got A for art. Julie knew one day she would win lots of art competitions for the school, which was one of the most glorious things she could think of, except maybe performing in the National Day Parade.
If only Vanessa would make Julie her best friend!
Julie did sit just behind Vanessa, so as soon as she sat down she dug her hand into her pocket and produced the five stones. They were in a little matching pouch with a drawstring, so she emptied them onto Vanessa's desk.
"Look! My mum made them for me to give you," she said, beaming. Julie had begged her mother to make them, with very specific instructions.
"Oooh! Thanks! They're purple!"
Vanessa immediately picked up one of the little beanbags, palming it in her hand, while pinching another one with her thumb and forefinger. Deftly, she threw it into the air and quickly exchanged the palmed beanbag for another one on the desk – the first move in the first stage of five stones. She exchanged the palmed beanbag again and again – four times in all, completing the first stage easily.
"Just nice! Not too tight not too saggy," Vanessa delivered her verdict. Julie thanked her mum silently for putting just the right number of green beans in each one. Good five stone sets were prized because it made getting through all the stages easier. You needed just enough slack in them to be able to pinch a corner easily, and enough bulk to give it the weight needed for it to fall back into your hand.
Just then, Mrs Tan came into the classroom, and Vanessa scrambled to get her new five stones into their pouch. The class monitor, a short girl called Hannah, stood up, and there was a collective scraping of chairs on the bare concrete floor as all the girls stood at attention.
"Good morning, class!"
"Good morning, Mrs Tan!" they chorused.
"Sit down," said the form teacher, smoothing her hair with her hand. "Group leaders, come up and get your essays for your group."
Another, softer scraping of chairs filled the room as ten girls made their way to the front to get the stapled sheets from Mrs Tan.
Julie loved getting essays back for English class because she always got high marks. She was especially proud of this essay, so she couldn't wait to see if Mrs Tan had given her a sticker or two for it. She had spent forty-five minutes on the picture in front of the essay, which was of her and Vanessa, holding hands and eating ice cream together, colouring it in very neatly with her coloured pencils.
Sure enough, when her group leader passed her her essay, she had gotten a 17 out of 20, and a pretty rainbow sticker that said "Good Job!" sparkled next to the grade. She had also got a double tick next to her drawing. She scanned through the essay for double ticks, and every one made her smile a little wider.
When she had finished re-reading her essay, paying special attention to all the bits with double ticks next to them, she tapped Vanessa on her back. "What did you get?"
Vanessa hesitated, then turned up the top right hand corner of the essay that she had folded down. It said 13/20, See Me.
"My mother's going to kill me," she whispered. "How?"
Julie furrowed her brow. 13/20 wasn't good, not at all. It was a just-pass. The worst she had ever gotten was 15/20, and she had been upset enough with that and had hid that essay from her mother, too. She couldn't help feeling worried for Vanessa. She had never gotten a "See Me" before. Those were terrifying words to see in red.
"Just don't show her lor," she whispered back.
"Cannot! She goes through my bag every night!" Vanessa whispered back.
"Girls!" said Mrs Tan sharply, and the whispering ceased. Julie hadn't even had a chance to talk to Vanessa about Australia yet. She would have to wait until recess.
It seemed that the school bell couldn't ring fast enough, but finally, it went, and the girls poured out of the classroom like wind-up toys let loose after turning the spring, running down the stairs to the tuck-shop with heavy footfalls that echoed all the way down the stairwell. Julie had a Forever Friends lunchbox in which her maid had put a ham and cheese sandwich so she didn't have to line up for her food. But Julie always got Yakult at the drinks store, not so much because she liked the green Yakult but more because it always came with a toy. Julie already had a small collection of plastic dragonflies that could balance on your finger and rubber balls that looked like planets which bounced twice as high when you threw them at the ground.
Right now the drinks store auntie was giving away tiny whistling streamers, which came in different colours and made a high-pitched whistle when you whirled them in a circle around you. Julie had about 10 of these, but wanted a red one. When she got to the front of the line she handed over her 50-cent coin and pointed at the green Yakults, and the auntie took one out of the fridge and passed her a streamer. She sighed when she saw it – it was another green one.
Julie pocketed her streamer and punched her straw into the middle of the tin foil of the Yakult, walking towards her usual table in the corner of the tuck-shop, by the water-coolers, and waited for Vanessa and Carol to get their meepok and join her.
The thick, flat yellow noodles were from the most popular stall in the whole tuck-shop, and the line always snaked all the way to where the tables were. Every girl had her favourite order memorised – meepok, extra towgay, extra chilli, soup or dry – and could rattle it off the moment it was her turn to order.
Yunmei was with them when they came, which surprised Julie. Yunmei was much shorter than any of them and usually hardly talked to them because she sat at the front of the class, but she supposed Vanessa was friends with everybody. Yunmei was underweight so she had her regulation chocolate milk in one hand and a bowl of meepok in the other.
"Yesterday, my mother made me study for four hours!" she was saying. "I almost couldn't stay awake OK. She made me do so many assessment books my head almost explode already."
"I know. I also had to study until very late. But how? I cannot finish studying all the chengyu (proverbs). I keep forgetting!" lamented Carol. She plonked her meepok on the table, leapt over the bench and sat down next to Julie. She turned to Vanessa. "Maybe later you can test me?"
Vanessa didn't say anything.
"What colour did you get?" asked Vanessa, turning to Julie.
"Oh, green again," said Julie, producing the little streamer out of her pocket.
"What colour you want?"
"Oh! I think I have a extra red one from my sister. If she says OK, maybe I can give you," offered Vanessa.
Julie's eyes lit up. "Really? Ahhh…..thank you! I already have 10, and I think I have three green ones already, I can exchange with you if you want…"
"No lah, my sister is in Primary Five, don't think she even plays with this kind of thing anymore…"
Julie nodded. Primary Fives were mysterious creatures. They were more than 10 years old! And they had to be very serious because of the PSLE exams in Primary Six.
"Did you hear what Mrs Loh said at assembly? Next year if we get into the best class we can go Australia!" Julie burst out, unable to hold it in any longer.
"Hiyah, Australia… I already went last year with my parents," said Yunmei, wrinkling her nose. "If they really want to make me study, they should let us go America or something."
Julie felt instant dislike for Yunmei. This wasn't the way the conversation was supposed to go. She and Vanessa were supposed to make a pact to go to Australia together, and to sleep in the same room.
"But America is so far away! I'm not sure my mum would let me go," said Carol.
"Anyway, I never go before, so I want to go," said Julie pointedly.
"You so smart, of course you can go lah," Vanessa burst out suddenly, then looked down at her meepok, falling silent again.
"I didn't mean that…." said Julie confusedly, while Carol shot daggers at her and put her arm around Vanessa's shoulders.
Tears were rolling down Vanessa's cheeks and into her noodles. She shrugged off Carol's arm and ran off to the toilet, with Carol trailing after her.
"You very insensitive you know," said Yunmei in a superior voice. "You very smart lah, but got no EQ." Julie glared at her, and, gathering her half-eaten sandwich and putting the lid back on her lunchbox, hurried after Vanessa and Carol to the toilet.
Vanessa was standing over one of the sinks in the toilet, sniffing loudly while Carol handed her tissue paper. Julie approached them cautiously.
"Sorry Vanessa, I really didn't mean…"
"It's OK," sobbed Vanessa. "It's just that…Daddy moved out last night, and Mummy is already so upset…What if she sees my score and scolds me some more? I dunno what to do…"
Julie looked down at her shoes. She knew Vanessa's parents had been quarreling, but Vanessa hadn't said anything about her dad moving out. She didn't know what to say.
"Can't you see you upset her?" Yunmei said, shoving Julie aside. "Come, don't cry…" she patted Vanessa on her back. Julie felt she couldn't breach the semi-circle they had formed, so she left, feeling terribly alone. In all the commotion, they hadn't even had time to play five stones.
Julie hesitated as she sat in front of the telephone, wondering whether or not to call Vanessa. She had her phone number memorised by heart. What would she say? She could start by apologising again. Was she even her second-best friend anymore? She had never made Vanessa cry before, in all the two years they had known each other.
Julie pursed her lips and dialed the familiar pattern. Her heart beat faster when the phone began to ring. Vanessa's house phone played a tinny version of Fur Elise while ringing, and Julie started unconsciously tapping her fingers along as though she were playing the piano.
"Hello?" It was Vanessa's mum. She sounded harassed.
"Hello, may I speak to Vanessa please?"
"Oh, Julie, it's you. Sure, hang on. VANESSA!" There was the sound of scrambling feet and the shuffling of the phone as it changed hands.
"Hey, it's me," said Julie, feeling foolish. "I wanted to say sorry."
"It's not your fault," said Vanessa valiantly.
"It was. I shouldn't have said that thing about Australia. Can you talk?"
"Yeah, my mum went into the kitchen."
"So, what happened with your dad?"
"He's not here. He's at a hotel, I think. I think they really split already…" Vanessa was whispering.
"I'm sorry. Is there something you can do?"
"I don't think so. They won't listen to me anyway."
"Is there someone they would listen to? Like your grandma, or a pastor?"
"I don't think so. Grandma doesn't like Daddy, and we're not Christian."
"My church has some pamphlets about divorce…maybe I could give you some and you could leave them around?"
"Maybe. Julie, I'm so scared about Chinese oral next week… My mum is too upset to practise with me."
"I'll practise with you tomorrow, during recess, if you want."
"Thanks… but… I really dunno. Even my tuition teacher said my Chinese is lousy."
"Your Chinese is OK what!" This was a lie. Vanessa's Chinese was terrible, much worse than Julie's. "You just need to practise. Is your tuition teacher coming today?"
"No, she only comes on Thursdays."
"Then on Thursday you tell her you need more practice for oral lor. Don't be scared of her! And if she doesn't help you, I will."
"Thanks Julie… I really feel like I can't talk to anybody about this. Nobody else's parents fight that I know of. Do your parents fight?"
"Sometimes," Julie lied. She hadn't seen her parents fight…well, only once before. When that happened, she had thought they would break up. "There was this one time we were in a shopping centre and they started shouting at each other. Me and my sis held hands, and we were each holding one of their hands…then they walked off in opposite directions and pulled us apart. It was so traumatizing!"
"But they got back together right?"
"You know, sometimes I feel like you're my best friend. I don't think I can tell this kind of thing to Carol."
Despite herself, Julie felt her heart swell. She was Vanessa's best friend! She was even closer to her than Carol!
"Well, you're my best friend," said Julie truthfully. "I can be best friends with you if you want."
"Yeah…I think I'm best friends with you now. Thanks Julie."
"It's OK lah. You'll be OK one."
"OK I better go study now…see you tomorrow. Bye."
Julie put the phone down, exhilarated. Not only was Vanessa not mad at her, they were best friends! Not second-best-friends, but best-best friends! She would be sure to write that in her letter to Vanessa to give her tomorrow, and to sign off with "Best Friends Forever!"
It was the first day of the exams – the Chinese oral exam. The 40 desks were spaced evenly in rows and columns in the classroom, instead of in groups of 10 like usual, and they were seated alphabetically by register number. Vanessa's surname was Wang, so she was all the way at the other end of the classroom.
Julie could see her lips moving silently as she read passages from her Chinese textbook. She was trying her best to be liu-li, or fluent, without awkward stops or pauses, but of course there would be one or two words in the exam passage that she didn't know and would have to skip over, or pronounce wrongly, and she would be sure to trip up then. Vanessa's Chinese wasn't good enough for her to know the extracurricular words that could crop up.
The first nine girls had already gone to the exam room. It was Julie's turn to pack up her bag, leave it at the front of the room and follow them. As she got up, she felt Vanessa's eyes on her, and she turned around.
"Good luck!" mouthed Vanessa, and Julie pursed her lips together grimly. She walked out of the classroom and down to the next one, where a short line of two girls was sitting on the floor outside the front door. As she sat down behind them, the girl in front got up and went into the classroom, passing the clear file that contained the passage and the cartoon that was the oral exam down to her.
Julie grabbed it immediately. Every second counted to prepare for this. She scanned the passage – sure enough, there were a couple of words she didn't know, and this made her heart hammer harder through her pinafore.
She flipped the folder over and stared at the cartoon of schoolchildren on a train. It didn't seem too difficult to talk about either – it was of a scene on an MRT train. She had described scenes like this dozens of times before in practice rounds with her tuition teacher. She smiled when she saw that an auntie sitting on the train had a pineapple in her shopping bag, and guessed that half the girls wouldn't know the word for pineapple in Chinese. But she did, so she was going to get those extra marks.
She flipped the folder back to the passage, and began reading it more carefully, mouthing each word as she went silently, and imagining the way her voice was going to rise and fall as she read it to the examiner. She peered into the classroom. The examiner was Ms. Lee, who taught another Primary Two class, and she seemed tough but fair. She was so relieved it wasn't Mrs Neo, who was fierce.
A little bell ding-ed, and it was time for her to move up one place to the front of the queue. Julie guessed how to pronounce the words she didn't know from the radicals she did know, hoping that might be right. She practised reading that sentence a couple of times in her head, praying that she wouldn't trip up on it later.
The bell went again – it was her turn. She strode into the classroom and sat down across the table from Ms. Lee, and began to read as loudly and clearly as she could. When she had finished she realised she could have read a little too fast, but at least it was over.
"Turn the page," said Ms. Lee in Chinese. "Tell me what you see."
Julie looked at the now-familiar picture.
"This is the scene of an MRT train, probably after school because there are schoolchildren on their way home," said Julie. "There are about 10 of them and they are wearing their school uniforms, so I can tell they are all from the same school."
"Four of them are standing and playing with the poles and running around, which is very dangerous. They should not be doing that because it's a disgrace to their school since they're wearing school uniforms and someone who sees them might complain to the school. They should observe the no-running sign in the train and obey the rules, or someone might get hurt."
"Another group of schoolchildren are sitting down next to an old lady who seems to be very shaky because she' s holding a walking stick. There is also another sign that says you should give up your seat for people who need it more than you, like old people or pregnant ladies or someone with small children. I think the boys and girls sitting down should give up their seat for the old lady."
"One woman sitting next to them seems to have gone to the market and has bought a pineapple which is in her shopping bag. Oh, and in the other corner there is a man who has brought a durian on the train, even though there is a no-durian sign on the train as well. All the people around him are covering their noses because of the smell. I think he is not very public-spirited because he's ignoring the regulations. He really shouldn't do that."
Julie felt a great satisfaction that she knew the words for both durian and pineapple in Chinese, and had managed to squeeze in a couple of chengyu in her description.
Outside, the rain was pattering against the roofs, and the corridors, which were open-air, were flecked with droplets of rain that had splashed onto the railings and into the school. Skipping out of the classroom, Julie traced a finger over the wet railings, drawing the droplets together into little pools. The rain was cool to the touch.
Of course, there was no talking to Vanessa about the exam because that would be cheating. It would be at least another forty minutes before it was Vanessa's turn. Julie hoped that she would know the words for pineapple and durian, and crossed her fingers. She made her way down to the tuck-shop where the public telephones were, dropped ten cents into the slot and took the heavy black receiver into her hand, dialing her home number.
Settling on the steps of the tuck-shop facing the driveway of the school, her schoolbag besides her, Julie waited for her mum. It was weird going home so early in the day. It was barely 10 o'clock, though of course the incessant rain made it feel earlier because it was so cool. Julie saw her mother's Toyota swinging into the driveway, and ran under her umbrella to the car, swinging the door open and scattering droplets everywhere.
"How was your exam?"
"Ahh….I think it was OK. I couldn't read all the words in the passage, but I didn't stop. And the picture was easy."
"Good! How did the other girls find it?"
"Er, I didn't talk to Vanessa about it cos she's at the back of the class. Mingling said it was easy when I asked her after the exam… I don't know about the others."
"Well, that's good that you found it easy. But got to study for the real thing…I mean oral is just 10 per cent, right?"
"Yeah…" Of course, even though oral exams were only 10 per cent of your mark, those one or two points could cost you in the rankings.
"I wonder how Vanessa will do… I really hope she does well so we'll be in the same class next year."
"Mm. You know, why don't you hang out more with Amanda? She seems to be more your wavelength, right?" Amanda always scored the best in Math, and her mother was Julie's mum's ex-classmate.
"But Vanessa is my best friend, not Amanda."
"Mm. Oh yeah, it's macaroni for lunch, your favourite."
"Oh yay, thanks Ma!"
Julie expected Vanessa to call her after she finished her exam, but she didn't. But Julie was so busy with her tuition teachers for Chinese and Math, who came in rapid succession, that she forgot about it. Because it was exam period, she didn't even have to practise her piano.
Exam period was like being in a special time warp. Every day seemed extra precious for cramming in as much information into your head as possible, and at the same time, exam period seemed to stretch on endlessly. When Julie was not doing practice papers from other schools from her tuition teachers, she was buried in her old files looking through mistakes she had made in past tests.
Mornings began with a special ritual – heating up a little bottle of Brand's chicken essence in a mug with hot water for five minutes, then gingerly pulling it out with the tips of her fingers so it didn't scald her. It was always tricky to unlatch the hot metal cap of the bottle, but when it came off with a satisfactory pop, Julie would relish the feeling of the hot glass bottle meeting her lips as she grimaced and downed the bitter brown fluid.
She didn't actually like the taste of the chicken concentrate, but she felt extra alert after drinking it, like a special power was glowing in her brain that primed it just for exams. Then it was off to school in the car with breakfast in the back seat, a textbook balanced on her knees for even the 30-minute journey.
Mrs Tan, the form teacher, would greet them after they came to the classroom from assembly, turn to the whiteboard and write the name of the exam with a marker, with the start and end time beneath it, and pass the exam papers face down to the girls sitting in the front row to pass down to the others.
Julie always squinted at the bottom sheet of the exam to try to read the questions through it, but it never worked. The words seemed tantalisingly close, and she could just make out the shape of them, but the paper was not transparent enough and it was difficult to make them out in mirror image. At this time she would bow her head and pray that she would do well. Then she arranged her three sharpened pencils, eraser and ruler in a symmetrical pattern above her paper, feeling the tips of the pencils with her fingertips to make sure they were pointy.
Julie didn't have much time to talk to Vanessa during the intense week and a half of exam period. She also didn't write her a daily letter like she did during the rest of the year. Because Vanessa's register number was so far away from Julie's, they also didn't really get to talk much, although they did check in with each other after every exam.
"Pencils down!" said the teacher when time was up, as girls tried to scribble answers till the very last second. Everyone felt like they would burst if they couldn't immediately talk to their friends about the questions.
"Girls, quiet while I collect the exam papers! The exam is not finished until I have everyone's paper!"
Every girl was making eyes and significant gestures at every other girl, while the teacher slowly walked down the rows, collecting all the papers in alphabetical order. When she had finally reached the end of the classroom, the room erupted in noise.
"Did you get 127 for No. 9?"
"Ahhh…..I almost remembered how to write that!"
The whole classroom was filled with the noise of the "experts" in whatever subject it was that day hastily showing their working for the hardest questions on the test, the ones everybody was uncertain about. There were gasps of delight when girls discovered they had got the right answer, and groans when they realised they had made a mistake. It was all the form teacher could do to shoo the girls out of the classroom and into the corridors, as a collective banging and scraping of chairs and tables signaled it was time to go home and prepare for the next exam.
On the final day of exams, when the form teacher finally said "Pencils down!", not even her sternest look could stop the classroom from bursting into raucous cacophony.
Carol was already at Vanessa's desk because she sat nearer her, and the two were comparing notes when Julie came over, too.
"What did you get for No. 3?" Vanessa was asking Carol, who furrowed her brow and tried to remember.
"Oh, No. 3 was easy, you just had to count all the triangles!" said Julie. "I think there were 12."
"Twelve!? I thought there were only 10!"
"Did you remember to count the bigger ones the small ones were in?"
"Oh no! You're right…." Carol hit her forehead with her right palm in a comical gesture. "Ahh…how come I never see it?"
"They were trying to trick you," said Julie sagely.
"Hai why you so smart," said Vanessa woefully. "I got stuck at number nineteen and wasted fifteen minutes trying to figure it out."
"Oh, I just skipped that one," said Carol.
"Did you finish the paper?" asked Julie.
"I missed question forty-nine and fifty," said Vanessa. "You?"
"Yah. But I wasn't sure about fifty…I kept trying to re-do it over and over again," said Carol.
"I guess you and I are the same, Vanessa…always cannot finish the paper…"
Despite herself, Julie wished she hadn't finished the paper too because of the way Vanessa looked at Carol when she said that – with great big, grateful eyes.
"I wonder what Amanda got for fifty," said Julie just to break the silence. "Amanda?" Julie prodded the class math whiz, and they spent a good ten minutes listening to her explain her working.
The form teacher was ushering them into the corridors. Although Julie was really happy that the exams were finally over, by the sight of Vanessa and Carol holding hands as they walked out of the classroom… why did Carol's surname have to be Wong? She had been sitting near Vanessa throughout the exam period – that had given her an unfair advantage these past few weeks.
To cheer herself up, Julie thought about the whole month of school holidays stretching into the distance. Perhaps Ma would let Vanessa have a sleep over at her house, and then they could cement their best-friendship. Maybe her parents would even let her sleep over at Vanessa's too, if they weren't too overprotective.
It seemed that the weekend passed with abnormal speed in a blur of rain and sunshine, and Julie was back at school on Monday in no time at all. There was one final exam – Art – which nobody could study for anyway, so the atmosphere was cheerful. The girls brought a whole range of games and books and colour pencils and oil pastels to school to occupy themselves between getting back their exams. They would be allowed to talk and play in class, and it would have been Julie's favourite period in school if not for the fact that they were getting their papers back.
Julie played a round of Cluedo with three other girls sitting nearby (Vanessa and Carol were too far away), including Yunmei, who won. All around them, girls were chatting or playing five stones and board games, even though it was a bit harder to play five stones on desks than on the floor.
Just then, Mrs Tan came into the classroom with a stack of exams. The class monitor got to her feet, and all the girls scrambled to theirs as well.
"Good morning class!"
"Good morning, Mrs Tan!" they chorused. Everyone had become suddenly alert.
"Please get back to your seats, all of you," said Mrs Tan, and there was a dragging of chairs as people tucked them back under their desks. When everyone had settled down and was facing forward, Mrs Tan straightened the pile of exams in her arms, and started walking down the rows from Register No. 1 to 40.
Some girls turned the top right corners down over their marks, while others showed their grades off, beaming. As Mrs Tan made her way down the line, the classroom got noisier and noisier as girls started comparing their marks with each other, until she finally reached the last girl, and everyone was in pandemonium.
Julie looked at the math exam in her hands, her heart pounding in excitement. She had gotten a 96/100! Could she have topped the class? No, someone must have gotten 98 or a 100…Julie gestured at Vanessa, signing "What did you get?" with her hands. Show you later, signed Vanessa back. You? Julie raised her fingers to sign nine, then six. Vanessa held two thumbs up.
"Congratulations to Amanda, who got 98.5 out of hundred and topped the class in math," said Mrs Tan. "It's also the highest score in the standard. Well done!" The classroom burst into applause. Nobody was surprised. "Now we will go through a few of the common mistakes," said Mrs Tan, moving to the white board and brandishing a marker.
"Please do your corrections in green pen on foolscap paper and staple it to the back of your test. I will collect them from you tomorrow, when you get back your English papers," said Mrs Tan. Most of the girls had already copied down the working on the white board for the problems they had gotten wrong, but some had to borrow their friends' exams to copy their answers as the teacher wiped down the white board.
"Thank you, class."
"Thank you, Mrs Tan!"
Julie jumped up and went over to Vanessa immediately. Vanessa handed her paper over to her, and Julie peeked under the folded-down top right corner. 85/100. Not bad, but not great either. She flipped through the paper. Vanessa had gotten most of the problems they had gone through wrong, but hadn't made that many careless mistakes.
"Do you think you can get extra marks?"
Vanessa shook her head. "No, Mrs Tan didn't mark anything wrongly," she said. "Some parts I was just careless, but a lot of it I didn't know how to do."
"Math is like that," said Julie sagely. "If you don't know you just don't know."
She picked up Vanessa's purple five-stone set and started practising while Vanessa used her paper to do her corrections. Vanessa stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth as she used her green pen to copy out Julie's working neatly on her foolscap paper.
"It's a good thing you're so good at math," said Vanessa. "I couldn't copy down the white board working fast enough."
"No problem, you can borrow it as long as you like," said Julie. Carol had gotten 89/100, but didn't need to borrow her paper. Soon Vanessa was finished with her corrections and they played five stones in earnest. The little beanbags made satisfying plops on the desk and Vanessa's hands were a blur as she got to the sixth stage without making a single mistake. She was just beginning the seventh stage, when Madam Teo came into the room with the Chinese exam.
Madam Teo didn't give out the exams in register number order, but by order of marks – from lowest to highest, and each girl had to go up and get her paper from her. It was an especially awful way to get back papers, and everybody was hoping they wouldn't hear their name.
Five girls remained – then four – then three – and finally, there was only one paper left in Madam Teo's hand, and it was hers! Julie jumped up to her feet as the classroom burst into applause, and she took her paper.
"98/100!" said Madam Teo in Chinese. "Well done."
When Julie came over, Vanessa forced herself to smile and held out her hand to shake hers.
"Congrats! Did you expect it?"
"No, of course not!" exclaimed Julie. "You know my Chinese wasn't that good what…I also don't know what happened."
"Well, you must have studied really hard."
"Not really…. Maybe my tuition teacher just happened to go over the right words before the exam…" said Julie modestly, but this irritated Vanessa.
"I wish I could be like you, no need to study also can top," she muttered.
"No lah, of course I got study!"
Julie picked up Vanessa's paper and looked at the mark. As she suspected, it was in the seventies. Her answer sheet was filled with crosses, and her essay was also extra short. The exam looked like a battlefield after a slaughter, filled with red marks from the teacher's pen. She really didn't know how to fix it. So she brought up the sleepover.
"My mum says you can stay over during the December holidays, if your mum lets you," said Julie.
"Oh! Really? I must ask my mum," said Vanessa, instantly cheering up.
"Have you stayed over at friend's houses before?"
"Oh, no, only my cousin's," said Vanessa. "I hope my mum will let me though, sometimes she can be overprotective."
The next day was their art exam, and Julie packed her oil pastels in her backpack, being careful to stretch two rubber bands over the box in a criss-cross to prevent them from escaping into her backpack and rolling around at the bottom, causing a huge, colourful mess. She also brought her black outliner, her 2B pencils and eraser.
Art class was the only time Julie envied Vanessa for her grades. Somehow, she always had the best ideas for what to draw. Many of Vanessa's pictures were tacked up on the back wall of the classroom, and had gold stars stuck on them. Sadly, art grades didn't count towards your overall class ranking, or Vanessa would be ranked higher for sure.
Mrs Tan handed out drawing blocks to everyone. They had an hour to draw something on the theme of "My Singapore, My Home," and nearly everyone was using oil pastels and black outliners, careful to fill every inch of the drawing block with colour.
Art exam was the most relaxed exam ever. People even walked up to the wastepaper basket to uncoil their outliners or peel off the paper on their oil pastels or sharpen their pencils, and took the opportunity to peek at what everyone else was drawing. It wasn't like you could actually cheat in an art exam.
Julie drew Changi Airport's control tower, with a few flowers that were supposed to be orchids next to it, but they weren't particularly good and looked like clouds instead. Underneath she drew an MRT train, and a row of happy children. Most people were drawing similar posters.
Julie's beige oil pastel had been worn to a tiny stump and was starting to stain her fingers. Quietly, she crept over to Vanessa's desk.
"My beige no more already, can borrow yours?"
"Sure," said Vanessa, taking her beige oil pastel and snapping it into two. "Nah."
Julie looked down at Vanessa's drawing block. It was a picture of Vanessa, her sister and her parents standing outside their terrace house. Vanessa's parents had their arms around each other and each was holding one of the little girls' hands. A tall coconut tree shaded all of them. In the top right hand corner of the drawing was a tiny helicopter flying the Singapore flag. Broad strokes of orange and yellow oil pastel formed the glow of a brilliant sunset. The little family looked glowingly happy in the evening light.
"It's National Day," she explained.
"That's really good, Vanessa!"
Vanessa turned her face up at her and smiled a small smile.
The girls eyed the pale blue stack of report books, with their smooth plastic surfaces, which Mrs Tan held in her arms when she came into the classroom.
"Now, I want all of you to take these report books, check that your grades are the same as what you got on your papers, and bring them home to get your parents to sign them. When I call your name, please come up."
When it was Julie's turn, Mrs Tan gave her a wink. "Congratulations!" she said conspiratorially, and Julie's heartbeat suddenly sped up.
She immediately flipped to the new page in the clear folder and her eye wandered down to the column where her class ranking was. It said 1! 1/158! She had come in not just first in class but first in standard! Her immediate response was to check her marks again. Sure enough, it made sense – even though she hadn't scored highest in Math or English, she had done better than both the girls who topped those subjects in her other subjects, and she had topped Chinese.
"Did you get it?" Yanmei demanded, snatching her report book from her as she passed by her desk. "Julie got it! Julie's top girl!" she said loudly, and for once Julie was grateful to her. She didn't know how to tell it to everyone else herself.
"Ahhhh…. Congratulations Julie!" She could see the jealous glint in Amanda's eye, because she must, of course, have been hoping she would get it herself. She was only smiling with her mouth.
Julie felt as though a bright white light had burst inside her heart, blinding her so that she couldn't even really hear what all the other girls were saying around her. She couldn't wait to tell her parents. She felt as though she was suddenly in a slightly different world, that the girls' faces in front of her were blurred or unfamiliar. Everything seemed to be happening very far away. She turned around to pick out Vanessa among the sea of other girls, because everything depended on what she had gotten as her ranking.
"Oh yay, we'll be in the same class!"
It was Carol, looking over at Vanessa's class ranking. She had come in 81st in standard. That meant she would be in the third-best class.
"Looks like I won't be going with you to Australia, Julie," said Vanessa ruefully.
Julie was too happy for this to sink in just yet. But as she looked at Carol and Vanessa, it felt like she had bitten into something really sour. She would be in the best class, but she wouldn't see Vanessa every day anymore. Could they still be best friends if they weren't in the same class?
"It's OK… you can still sleep over during the December holidays, right?"
"Yeah, I think so…"
Julie felt as though she was swimming in something other than air as the girls filed out of the classroom, and she went downstairs to wait for her mother. Everything seemed unreal. It didn't seem fair that she couldn't take Vanessa with her to the best class.
Of course, Julie's parents were thrilled with the news that she was first in standard. They wanted to go out for dinner to celebrate, and asked Julie to choose where to go. They couldn't understand why Julie wasn't happier.
"You'll make new friends," said her mother reasonably.
"You might even like them better because they're on your wavelength," said her dad. But Julie refused to believe there would be anyone with as attractive a personality as Vanessa. She'd be stuck with people like Amanda instead.
That night, Julie called Vanessa.
"Hey, Vanessa. How did it go?"
"Oh I don't know… Ma cried again."
"Oh no. Because of your report card?"
"No. She already knew I was not going to get into the best class. It was because of the drawing."
"The drawing? Your art exam drawing?"
"Yeah… You see, she had to call my dad to come sign the report card, so they were together when I showed it to them. I got an A, remember?"
"Yeah, it was really, really good."
"Well, he saw it… and I think he's coming back."
"Huh? Because of the drawing?"
"Yeah, I think so. He saw it, and my mum started crying. And then he hugged her, and I think he's moving back."
"What? That's great news, Vanessa! Did he say for sure he's coming back?"
"I don't know. Maybe. They haven't talked about it yet."
"Let me know, OK? And let me know about the sleepover also."
That night, as Julie's mother tucked her into bed, Julie stared up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling, and thought of Vanessa's drawing again. As she drifted off to sleep, it seemed to change in her memory.
The bright orange sky turned from the broad strokes of the oil pastel into the soft colours of the clouds at dusk, glowing a delicate shade of pearlescent yellow between the buildings. She could see Vanessa, Vanessa's sister, and her mum and dad, gazing at a miniscule helicopter in the sky. They looked happy, and very far away. As she drifted off to sleep, they seemed unreachable, shapes blurring into colour, receding just beyond sight.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 4 Oct 2017