In my final year at Junior College, when I was 18 and about three months away from the ‘A’ Levels, someone discovered that someone else had messed up a thing or two with the curriculum of my Higher Art class, and, as a result, we had unfortunately been missing out on a lot of the compulsory syllabus. I was very abruptly handed a stack of notes as heavy and substantial as the hearts of a thousand panicking students, conveniently packed into a repurposed A4 cartridge paper box. Peering into its dark interior, all I saw were rows upon rows of tiny font, sweaty and anxious and demanding to be digested quickly please, without a minute to spare.
So I read. And I read, and I read. I read while walking home (not recommended, very unsafe). I read before bed. I spent my recess breaks with Walter Benjamin, and whiled away boring lectures by chewing through John Berger’s essays. I tackled Plato on all forms of public transport, and during rush hour it did certainly seem like this world might be a poor imitation of some ideal form, some true reality, a version in which, hopefully, I didn’t have my nose tucked snugly into a stranger’s armpit, while trying to cram for my exams.
I read a great deal of challenging content in those three months. When I finally sat down in the exam hall for the paper, my brain was so stuffed with philosophies—many of them contradictory—that I felt I might either have a nosebleed, or spontaneously combust.
Thankfully, neither occurred, but I did write myself quite nearly to carpal tunnel syndrome.
(a) Form or function—which is more important? Discuss.
A few years later, it was a perfect day in London, where I was going to University. Glorious weather, a week or two before the height of summer, everything sparkling and golden and bright. Alone, I packed a book and a flask of tea, threw on a light jacket, and headed for Hyde Park. I lived in the Southeast, so Hyde Park was a distance away, and on the Tube I ached and itched to escape the paltry artificial light and the gloom of the tunnels. I longed to be in the sun. Once there, I walked till I found a nice bench along a wide corridor of trees. I sat down, cracked open my book, and felt like my heart couldn’t have been fuller if I tried.
I’d been reading for about 15 minutes when I noticed a little spider on the armrest. Then I noticed two. Then I peered between the gaps in the wood and noticed a white fuzzball of cobwebs below the bench, about the size of two fists.
Suffice it to say that in the four years I spent in London, I left a good piece of my heart there, but only once did I read a book in a park, and only for 15 minutes and a little bit. I polished off the rest of the story in my bed by the window, cosied up with a glass of wine.
Fast forward a little, and I was wide awake at 5am in Boston, hopelessly jetlagged and impatient for breakfast. The day was just beginning to break, and little by little, inch by tiny inch, the sky was beginning to lighten. I lay in bed watching the silhouette of his back, shoulders rising and falling with each slow breath, a mountain in shadow etched against a watercolour palette of pinks and oranges and blues. It began to snow, white building upon white, and everything was silent. Carefully, so as not to wake him, I sat up in bed and reached for my book on the shelf.
Just the day before, we’d been at the Harvard Bookstore, a place of utter charm and wonderment. I’d squished around in my snow-slushed boots, reading the back of every book with an interesting cover. It was in the course of this aimless hunt that I picked up one particular book, a very special one, with a single polaroid image on its matte black cover. I casually flipped to the middle, and landed upon a passage where the author was describing her first introduction to the writing of Haruki Murakami, a novel enigmatically titled A Wild Sheep Chase. She’d been hooked, and went on to hungrily explore his entire oeuvre. This story would have been perfectly ordinary, except for the fact that this was exactly what had happened to me. Having seen the name Haruki Murakami around, I’d gotten curious and picked up A Wild Sheep Chase second hand at Portobello Market in London. I’d been promptly hooked, too. It was nothing short of sweet serendipity. I flipped back to the cover. The coincidence I had in my hand was M Train by Patti Smith.
M Train was the only book I bought at the Harvard Bookstore. I’ve since reread it countless times, and have made notes and written all over it while in places both far, and near, and in between. I’ve grown to know and adore Patti Smith through her writing, and she’s a bit of a literary hero for me. She’s the rock star I hope to blossom into one day.
Before all that happened, though, I was in bed in Boston and reading M Train for the first time, savouring the sensations of the new. He was quietly asleep beside me, and that was new too. I couldn’t have known then that a few short months later I would be on my own again, and rereading Smith’s chapter on being alone in NYC on New Year’s, and that it would make me cry. For now, it was peaceful, and the sun was rising on a world freshly blanketed in snow. All would be alright.
I’ve not read widely, but I’ve read deeply. There are sentences that are burned into my heart and mind, that occasionally float to the surface from the depths of my consciousness, that glow fiery orange in the dark.
Sometimes I read and I’m bored. Sometimes I flip the last page of a book, and I know that I will never be the same again. Sometimes I read and it makes me laugh, and other times I read through a thick film of tears.
I’ve tried to read people, and I’ve often drawn a blank. I’ve rolled over in bed and been jolted by the bitter sense that the person beside me was no one I really knew, after all. Sometimes being with someone is like being caught with a page turner, a masterpiece that keeps you reading through the night. Sometimes the summary oversells the story. Sometimes you read till the middle and you want to know how it ends, but you just can’t go on. Regardless of the genre, the ending is usually the same—you flip the last page, and you know you’ll never be quite the same.
I have books, and I have people. I never really own either of them—they both own me. Sometimes I get to write, too, and then I establish a middle ground of sorts. I crawl as far as I can through the tunnels of a heart, and right where I can’t squeeze any further, I carve my name on the walls. Small but permanent, so I float occasionally to the surface, so I throb like fire in the dark.
And so the cursor continues to blink, and I continue to flip the pages, on and on in the tireless pursuit of a story, on and on till the words and the breath die out.
You can read Heather’s first post with us, ‘Inheritance,’ here.
Heather Teo is an aspiring Singaporean writer. She studied Fine Art & History of Art at Goldsmiths College, London, and absolutely loved every minute of it. She is interested in psychologies of home and interior spaces, and explores these themes through evocative objects, relics of existences, and moments of intimacy in everyday life. Her short story ‘Gently Burns the Crescent Moon’ was published this year in ‘In This Desert, There Were Seeds’, an anthology by Ethos Books and Margaret River Press. She has also composed the screenplay for an animated short film titled ‘Danger Pain Harm’ (2019). Besides writing, Heather enjoys dabbling in film photography, and was the director of ‘Old of Things’ (2017), a documentary short film and the winner of the 2017 Heritage Short Film Competition in Singapore. Heather currently teaches art in Singapore. She spends nights typing stories, and weekends exploring with her camera.