Man at His Best

Fiction: The Next Big Love Story

In partnership with the Singapore Literature Prize, we took local fiction stories and interpreted them as movie posters. Here's a short story written by Sithuraj Ponraj.

BY Sithuraj Ponraj | Dec 28, 2017 | Books

Photographs by Ronald Leong. Styling by Eugene Lim. Art direction by Priscilla Wong.

 

What would local fiction stories look like if they were adapted for the big screen? Esquire partnered with the Singapore Literature Prize to interpret four authors and their fiction stories into movie posters. Starring actors Shane Mardjuki, Michelle Goh and a special appearance by the frontman of Stopgap, Adin Kindermann, there’s a psychological thriller, a romantic comedy, fantasy and horror. Here’s a piece by Sithuraj Ponraj written especially for Esquire.

 

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Big Joe was nearly forty when I met him. He had the confidence of someone who knew what people were about and he also filled up his end of the table. He was leaning forward slightly, his elbows placed squarely on each side. His expensive white shirt crinkled in the bright sunlight. He had folded his sleeves up his forearm, sitting with his fingertips touching each other in front of his face.

I had quit my regular job to be a full-time writer. I was trying to make ends meet by writing sponsored articles in small magazines with forgettable names. The magazines often folded after about four issues. Jerome said that was the idea. He ran the company that produced these magazines and was the general editor for all of them. According to Jerome, the articles did not matter. Just write whatever the sponsors want, he said. The magazines made money from the advertisements, not from the articles.  I wrote articles on topics so unrelated with each other that I started jotting them down in exercise books just to be sure that I got them straight and did not say something in one article that I would regret in another. Some of my more memorable articles were on yoga mats, three-in-one massage chairs and Hawaiian herbal pills for male virility.

I just needed to make up the word count to get enough money.

I had two short story collections shortlisted for some prizes in two different years and a poem for the last National Poetry Award. There was some excitement about that for a short while. People called me for a panel or two—but I did not win any prize in the end and the calls stopped. The company promoting the shortlisted books promised to fix me up with some high-profile opportunities—the real stuff—but I did not hear from them anymore and that was that.

A few writers I knew started making short films. I was convinced by Facebook chatter that there was some promise in this. Everyone seemed to know someone who was making a short film. It sounded glamorous enough and I had a vague idea of meeting some girls—so I rang up a small production company in Chinatown and sold them the logline of a soppy love story, something complicated and involving a married woman so that it can be called a serious movie.

I wrote the Working Title of the film on the back of my exercise book while waiting for the receptionist at the production company to find the right person to talk to me—“The Next Big Love Story”.

Someone else was interested in funding such serious stuff and the production company told me to go ahead and give them the script in two months’ time. Big Joe had already been acting for ten years by then and was well-known for playing the good-hearted male lead in local dramas. He was good-hearted because the girls in the dramas did not like him at first but married him in the end anyway. I wrote up the one-page synopsis and the screen treatment of about twenty-two pages and rang up Big Joe’s company to make an appointment.

 

 

The First Act

Big Joe loves to sing. He has a caramel voice, his first voice teacher used to say before she regretfully discontinued lessons – buttery smooth, sweet on the sides and top, likely to go anywhere.

The problem is, people think that Big Joe does not look like he should sing. He is one point nine metres tall, has narrow rounded shoulders, a wide stomach, small beady eyes, a double chin and pale, fleshy bits of flesh that hang from his cheeks and arms - likely to go anywhere, as his voice teacher said. Big Joe walks with the thoughtful precision of someone who is not sure of where he is and where he should go. He fills up the whole stage, his secondary school teachers moan after they audition him for a singing part in a school musical. His complexion catches the light at all the wrong angles.

He looks like a monster.

Joe does not take the rejection too badly. The teachers offer Big Joe a place on the Props Team more out of guilt than real necessity. Joe carries papier mache rocks and shoulder-high fake Grecian pillars to the stage during scene breaks, placing them carefully on the spots marked X with masking tape. Joe sings under his breath when placing the props, his voice a low, insistent hum, warm on his lower chest and ribcage and which makes his large body shudder with an unspeakable emotion. Big Joe is happy.

Big Joe loses his temper only once in the weeks before the performance. F., the tall, slim male lead for the musical walks into the drama room early one afternoon to find Big Joe standing before the large floor-to-ceiling mirrors placed around the room. Big Joe’s eyes are closed and his hands are holding tightly to a thick, dark blue-green-and-brown blanket draped around his shoulders.

The blanket belongs to F.’s girlfriend, Sharon. Sharon brought her grandmother’s blanket for F. to wear during the performance. F. was the guy wearing the multi-coloured coat in the musical.

F. tells Big Joe to take-my-girlfriend’s-blanket-off-your-stinking-fat-body-it-belongs-to-her-grandmother-and-not-on-your-dirty-ass-you-freak-and-fatso. F. then tries to pry Big Joe’s thick fingers off the blanket but the thick folds of cloth are trapped between the fingers, round as fat, black roses - making Big Joe look like a magician who is pulling them out of thin air except he is not wearing shiny black tall hat. F. then calls Big Joe the-son-of-a-fat-pig-mother-and-father. Big Joe loses his temper at that point. He lifts his hand and strikes F. across the face with an open fist as large as a bread toaster, fracturing F.’s cheekbone on the left side and leaving him unable to hear anything through his left ear for the next three weeks.

Big Joe stomps out of the rehearsal room in anger after this but comes back about thirty minutes later because he is not sure where he should go. F. is still lying prone on the dusty carpeted floor, clutching the left side of his face - but by now the whole cast and crew have gathered around him in a circle. The drama teacher has called the Principal and the ambulance. No one notices Big Joe standing at the edge of the circle at first - his mouth slightly open, his face both curious and amused at the same time. The Principal later asks Big Joe’s parents to come to a meeting over the incident and the other students ignore him during class time and recess breaks.

But Big Joe is only sixteen. Everyone wants to give Big Joe a chance. The students have started talking to him again by the time the performance opens. Only F. refuses to talk to him.

Big Joe’s drama teacher writes him a testimonial on his contribution to the musical. It reads, Joe has shown a positive attitude and keen interest in his duties as Third Assistant Props Manager. With a little diligence, Joe can go anywhere.

Big Joe does not do well for his O Levels. He loses words when they are printed on a page. His old parents sell pork at the nearby wet market and come back home to find Big Joe sitting at the dining table in the kitchen, his textbooks open in front of him. They stare with concern as Big Joe puts a stubby finger on the open pages and tries to trace where the words went. The words are like beautiful koi fish, appearing on the surface just for a little while and then diving headfirst into the page to disappear without a trace. But Big Joe wills himself to sit and stare at the pages for hours. He would hate to disappoint his parents who work so hard and long for their only child.

Big Joe spends much of the next six months before a private school decides to accept him on probation, watching singing competitions on YouTube. Sometimes Joe sings along, holding his hands a little in front of his body, to make space for the thick blanket he imagines himself wearing.

His voice fills his three-room HDB bedroom flat like warm caramel, buttery smooth, sweet on the sides and the top.

For the first time in his life, Big Joe sits mesmerised by the screen.

A Second Act

About a year later, Big Joe meets Jopie when auditioning to be a stagehand for a very important Australian musical that has come to town. Jopie is not a permanent employee of the production house. She is a freelancer, thirty-eight, one-third his size and not married. She tells Big Joe that she has worked in many big productions in London, New York and Sydney.

Jopie takes Big Joe under her wings when she recognises that both share the same malignant blackness inside themselves. She calls it mentoring. Big Joe is fine with that. He calls her every night on the phone. At first, they talk about the production stuff. Big Joe starts singing for her, his deep smooth baritone building up to huge tidal wave that leaves her trembling slightly in the darkness of her bedroom, weakened and moist.

Jopie knows many people in the arts scene and she gently nudges them, opening doors for Big Joe at this place and that. She ignores the whispering that has started around her, brushing them off like she has done with other rumours all her life. It is difficult being unmarried. She concentrates her energy on building a firm foundation for Big Joe that will last even after his National Service.

One day, Jopie tells Big Joe over the phone, you know that I cannot belong to you. I have promised someone else that I would be faithful to him. I must keep the promise even if I regret making it now.

Big Joe is lying on his bed clutching the phone hard to his ears. He replies, you will keep talking to me, won’t you? I will only be able to sing if you keep talking to me.

Memories are short. Big Joe starts winning prizes in singing competitions that Jopie entered him for. Someone senior in the singing circles advises Big Joe that being linked to an older woman could be a liability to his singing future.

Big Joe realises that his phone keeps ringing at night even if Jopie does not call. Jopie sends Big Joe a text message wishing him all the best before the finals of a regional singing competition. Big Joe does not answer.

Third and Final

So, you want me to play a man who sacrifices everything to protect the honour of a woman he loves? says Big Joe, his eyes screwed him in concentration as he scans the film treatment I have given him for words he recognises. His voice is still a rich baritone although he has stopped singing for twenty years – ever since he broke into local dramas.

I could do that, he says–yes, I could. It is what my fans expect of me anyway.

I lean back with a sigh.

So how is Sharon? I ask. There is a picture of her – curvaceous, draped over Big Joe’s neck in last week’s entertainment magazine.

Oh fine, fine. His eyes then turn suspicious. Do you know her?

Nope, just saw your picture with her in last week’s magazine. I hold up the magazine for Big Joe to see.

Right. She’s a fine woman, he says. You know I have a good feeling about this project that you are bringing me. The Next Big Love Story. I love the title.

Big Joe carefully folds the papers and hands them back to me.

We should start this as soon as possible. It has the potential to go places.

 

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Sithuraj Ponraj wrote this short story especially for the November issue of Esquire. The trilingual writer—who writes in English, Spanish and Tamil—will launch a poetry collection entitled The Flag Party and a yet-to-be-titled short story anthology this month. Published by Roman Books, these books will mark his debut in English.


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