Saturday, May 28

The sign of the pen

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USED envelopes, unpaid bills and old lottery tickets are stacked in an untidy pile in front of the monitor on my work desk. The laptop sits beside it with a tangle of cables snaking haphazardly all over. Among others, they are connected to a portable hard disk, the monitor and external speakers.

Previous attempts at decluttering only worked for a short while. The desk would invariably get messy again with other bits of junk growing into a new pile as the days went by. While it may appear like laziness on my part for failing to put everything back in their rightful place after use, my defence for the disarray is that I thrive in organised chaos.

I like to think I know where every item is in that clutter but that is just me being in denial. It is a wonder the things I find buried underneath, things that I have forgotten I ever owned. While tidying up the desk recently, I found an old beat up pen. It once belonged to my father.

I got back from school one evening and told him that my Primary 5 class teacher had asked every student to bring a fountain pen to school the next day. She wanted to teach us to write in cursive with it. He thought for a while, opened the drawer beside him and took out a box. Inside the box was a pen with a shiny dark green plastic body and brilliant gold plated cap.

It looked almost like the ball pen on his desk. Both pens must have been a pair in a set. He had used the ball pen to sign business contracts and many other important documents in his work as an electrical engineer. The pen together with a non-matching mechanical pencil were always clipped to his shirt pocket whenever he was at work.

He took out a bottle of ink, taught me how to fill the reservoir and then handed the pen over to me with a stern reminder not to drop it, or else the nib would be damaged. I nodded. I was elated. I had never held a writing implement that looked so exquisite and expensive in my little hand before. It looked out of place in the ordinariness of my pencil case.

That day marked the beginning of my fascination with fountain pens. I later discovered the pen was the Parker 45, a very popular pen back then. I used it for school work and everything else that required writing. I liked the feel of the nib gliding effortlessly across the paper as I wrote. Writing suddenly became pleasurable. I was always looking for excuses to use the pen.

I bought myself another fountain pen from the neighbourhood sundry shop when I entered secondary school. It did not write as smoothly as the Parker. Rather, it was more like writing on sand paper. That was how bad it was. I put it aside after a few days and never used it again.

I remember penning long winded letters to pen pals in countries half a world away. Those were exciting times. We also exchanged postcards and photos of ourselves. At its height, I was sending off three letters per week to three different pen pals in Europe and the United States.

When I got infatuated with a girl in Form 3, I wrote my first love letter and several more with it. That was the time I really honed my handwriting skills in attempts to make a good impression on her. That infatuation disappeared as fast as it came but all was not lost. In polishing my strokes to give it a flair that could be recognised on first sight as essentially mine, I learnt patience and perseverance.

And then I started keeping a journal. The pen chronicled my fears and doubts as a growing teenager. There was a certain sense of romanticism in using a fountain pen to ink my innermost thoughts on paper.

The fountain pen was borne out of the need for better writing implements to replace quill pens and dip pens. From the time Petrache Poenaru patented the fountain pen in 1827, it has undergone countless improvements by different makers. In the present time, they are still looking for ways to perfect it in the minutest ways possible.

The fountain pen to me is already as perfect as it can be. It was God-sent after I lost major functions of my hands to spinal cord injury. I lost the ability to grip. Compared to a ball pen, the fountain pen requires less effort to write. That made it an ideal tool for me to continue with my journal after the mishap, which I did in the first few years.

Writing purely for myself was very therapeutic. I was struggling to regain my self-confidence and accepting the fact that I would never walk again. Those private moments where I translated my feelings into words gave me a better insight into my own psyche and helped me deal with the grief and uncertainty.

When I started using the computer, the convenience of the laser printer and Internet no longer gave me a reason to handwrite anything any more. Emails and blog entries could not be handwritten. Most of the documents for work had to be in digital formats.

It has been at least six years since I last used a fountain pen. I am glad I found my first pen again. I see it as a sign. Despite moving houses four times and losing or misplacing many treasured personal effects in the process, this pen would appear where I least expected it.

Of all my father’s belongings that were bequeathed to me when he was alive and after his death, it is needless to say I value this pen the most. It gives me a sense of connection with him. We each have one half from the same set. As I held mine in my hand, I am inspired to resume handwriting my journal where I left off many years ago.

Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.