I moved into Normanton Park with my parents when I was 6 and had lived there for most of my life. Normanton Park was a sprawling housing estate situated atop a hill beside the Ayer Rajar Expressway that could only be entered and exited through one road.
I always imagined it to be some sort of fortress, which was rather apt given the fact that the place first started out as an exclusive living quarters for military officers.
My father used to be a captain in the army.
Beside my apartment block was a large field that kids used to play football on. I would at times see old men practising their golf strokes, and I could only imagine how difficult it was to retrieve their golf balls as the field was hardly maintained.
Up the slope on one side of the field was a quiet, mysterious road that was fenced off from the rest of the estate. Beside that road was a dense forest that the kids in the estate used to call The Twilight Zone. One of them told me that people who entered the forest would instantly go crazy. Another said that our eyeballs would burst out of their sockets if we raised our voices while in this area. Mr. Abdul, the friendly security guard who I would always greet with a high-five, said that residents living in the three-storey block nearest to the forest could at times hear a faint plodding noise coming from the road.
He said this was the sound of the spirits of Japanese soldiers marching along the road.
I reckoned what Mr. Abdul said was probably the closest to the truth, not because he was an adult but because of a history lesson. During one school excursion to Kent Ridge Park, which happened to be just beside my estate (again, this place was separated by a tall fence crowned with barbed wires) we were told that the park was where a fierce battle between the Malay Regiment and the invading Japanese forces was waged.
When I told my classmates that I lived in the estate beyond the fence, they threw me bewildered looks. They said that my home was where evil lurked. They told me to pray more often so that I don’t get possessed by the vengeful spirits of dead soldiers. They said I should always have the Bible with me. I went to a Methodist school.
Unlike Eunos Crescent, which was bustling till late in the night, Normanton Park was idyllic during the day but somewhat eerie in the evenings. It was never a problem for us kids because we would only play football on the basketball court or at the terribly maintained field till 6.30pm when we had to scurry home for dinner. The only times I had to walk around the estate after sunset was when a neighbour invited us to a barbecue by the small swimming complex, or when my mother took me to the charming little bookstore or supermarket. We never once went anywhere near the Twilight Zone or Kent Ridge Park.
But I always wished we did. Whenever I had to retrieve the football that landed near the slope facing the Twilight Zone, I would pause for a few seconds just to stare into the wilderness, hoping to see something stare back at me. Whenever I had the chance to be out in the estate at night, I’d always look toward this mysterious zone. But I never could see anything. There were no street lamps past that fence and the entire area was nothing more than a patch of blackness. I wondered if the Twilight Zone was indeed filled with such evil that no light can ever penetrate it. I was desperate to find out what the forest had within.
“You can’t go in there. It’s dangerous,” said my father when I asked him to accompany me into the Twilight Zone one evening.
“But if you follow me, it won’t be dangerous. You can protect me,” I retorted.
“Finish your homework and I’ll take you there,” he replied.
I excitedly ran to my room and poured all the books out from my back pack, spending the next 30 minutes solving algebra equations and writing Chinese characters. I was about to put on my socks and sports shoes (in case I needed to outrun the evil Japanese spirits) when my mother came home with bags of groceries.
“I bought ice cream. Do you want to have some while you watch your show?” she asked.
My favourite Chinese drama serial The Last Swordsman, was about to begin. I knew the hero was going to have his arm hacked off today. I needed to find out how on earth that could happen. And I always loved seeing the evil villain, some half-man, half-woman assassin with a whiny voice and long deadly nails, in action. Plus, ice cream.
Okay, forget it, the Twilight Zone can wait.
My first visit to the Twilight Zone took place a week later. It was an unplanned one. Joshua, the annoying kid from Block 4, had called me to meet him at the sheltered walkway near the guard house so that he could show me his new toy rifle. Needless to say, we ended up playing Police and Thief, and no surprises who got to play the latter.
The rules were simple – tag the thief with your hands or with the sponge bullets from the rifle and the policeman wins. As much as I loved playing with toy guns, I always preferred to be the thief. The idea of being hunted excited me, and I had pretty long legs that were great for running.
A head taller, a year older and a lot fatter than I was, Joshua always proclaimed himself as the leader of the bunch of kids we used to play with. He hated losing and never played by the rules. Sometimes he would even introduce stupid ones when he realised he was not going to win.
On this day, he knew he was never going to outrun me, so he pretended to be hurt. As I reached out to help him up, he spun around, accidentally striking me on the face with his arms. The impact sent my spectacles flying to the ground and left me with a bruised cheek.
“I win!” he yelled.
I wiped my tears away and realized they were laced with a thin layer of blood. My cheek was bleeding. I was in pain. But most of all, I was angry. Very angry. I knew he could pin me down and pinch and slap me like how he did to the other kids. I decided not to fight with him.
“You think you’re so great don’t you?” I said.
I could see my nose expand and contract as I heaved with rage. It looked one of those magic mushrooms in Mario Brothers doing a little dance.
“Of course I am. I never lose. I’m older than you. That means I’m better at everything.”
“But are you? I dare you to chase me into the Twilight Zone.”
Joshua squinted at me, contemplating the challenge I had just laid before him.
“Fine. Don’t beg me to save you when the evil spirits appear,” he said.
“I’ll see you there in 10 minutes. I need to use the toilet.”
“Liar. You’re just going to go home and cry yourself to sleep.”
“See you there, fucker,” I said before running home.
That was the first time I used the word “fucker”. It just came out of my mouth. I think it was my uncle who used it during the family gathering a few weeks ago. It felt good saying it. I felt as if a part of my anger had evaporated into thin air just as the word rolled off my tongue.
Upon reaching home, I quickly took off my shoes and headed to the toilet to wash my cheek. Then I darted into my room and grabbed the mini Bible from my bag, stuffing it into the back pocket of my shorts.
This was it, I was going to make Joshua pay.
“You idiot! How are we going to get in?” yelled Joshua.
I never knew the gate to the Twilight Zone was locked. I yanked the rusty padlock, hoping that it would for some reason come apart. It didn’t. I plucked a handful of branches from a nearby bush and slid the slimmest one into the keyhole. I had watched people pick locks on television by jabbing long pins into it. I thought I’d give it a shot.
Maybe I’d get lucky. Maybe I’d just have to wait for another time to get my revenge.
“Seriously? You’re going to open the lock with a stupid branch?” said Joshua.
I ignored him and carried on twisting the branch, silently willing the lock to open, when I was suddenly shoved to the ground.
“That’s for wasting my time!” said Joshua, who was now standing over me with his toy rifle pointed at my face.
His menacing look soon gave way to a grin. Everything suddenly slowed down as I saw the finger on the trigger retract, like a stalk of rose suddenly going limp, making the gesture for death. I closed my eyes and cringed. So much for getting my revenge. I braced myself for pain.
What followed was a loud bang. But it wasn’t that of the rifle. It was too loud to be so.
The padlock had fallen to the ground.
As Joshua turned away from me and stared at the padlock in disbelief, I quickly got on my feet and pushed the gate open. The hinges emitted a nauseating shrill, like deranged witches cheering around a cauldron. I ran as fast as I could, skipping over a small gutter by the side of the road before setting foot into the forest.
When I turned around, all I saw were countless tree trunks, overhanging branches and spider webs. Joshua was nowhere in sight. I stood my ground and slowed my breathing so that I could better hear what was going on around me. I suspected that fat bastard was lurking around, waiting to ambush me. But the only sounds I heard were the leaves rustling in the wind, the mynas squawking and the faint rumble of traffic from the highway.
Satisfied that I wasn’t being followed, I went out in search of something I could bring back as proof of my expedition in The Twilight Zone. I knew my friends would be awed if found out I ventured into this area alone. I knew Joshua would be humiliated when everyone discovered he chickened out.
I spent the next hour exploring the forest, observing spiders weave their webs, centipedes crawling through the carpet of dead leaves and butterflies fluttering past the ethereal slivers of light that shone through the canopy. I even saw a squirrel and had chased it past a small slope when I realized that the light was quickly fading.
I looked at my watch. It was 6.45 pm. I was late for dinner. It was time to head back.
As I turned around to head back down the slope, I started to hear a continuous thud coming from a distance. The hairs at the back of my neck stood. I pulled out the bible from my pocket and clutched it close to my chest. Could this be the spirits of the Japanese soldiers?
The entire forest now was blanketed in a blue hue that seemed to get darker every minute. The noise became more audible as I ran toward home. I froze in my tracks, realising that the spirits might be waiting for me at the gate. I decided to make a dash for it. I might just beat them to it. I have a Bible.
Everything in front of me became a blur. I felt as if I was tossed around like clothes in a washing machine. My right ankle was swollen and I could not bring myself to walk. Each step I took send a jolt to my head and shivers down my spine. It was completely dark now, and the crickets and toads had already began the contest to see who was the loudest. I hated toads. They were slimy, ugly and disgusting. Their croaks always seemed to produce an ominous echo that made me grimace.
But on this today I welcomed the noise, because it seemed to drown out the stomping of the boots.
I tried to crawl but the thorny stems of the mimosa plants on the ground kept pricking me. Exasperated, exhausted, hungry and in pain, I started to sob. I almost let out a yell for help but I instinctively covered my mouth. I didn’t want my eyeballs to pop out. I didn’t know if that would’ve really happened but I didn’t want to take the chance. I couldn’t live without my favourite television shows.
As if things couldn’t get worse, the sound of shoes hitting the ground erupted once more. I held my hand to my mouth, desperate not to make a single sound. A black figure suddenly appeared in the distance. Based on the sound of its footsteps, I could tell it was coming toward me. I closed my eyes and prayed, hoping that this was for some reason all just a dream. The rustling of leaves got louder. The entity was almost upon me.
Will I go insane? Will I be possessed by some demonic force? Will my parents miss me?
I never knew spirits could talk.
“Hey! Are you okay?”
Perhaps this was a benevolent spirit.
“Hey! I’m talking to you!”
Okay, maybe this wasn’t a spirit after all.
I opened my eyes and saw a pair of boots in front of me. They looked so real. Not spectral or supernatural. I slowly lifted my head and stared the figure in the face.
It was Mr. Abdul.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“I was doing my rounds and noticed that someone had entered this area so I came in to check. The next thing I know I see some stupid kid putting a bicycle lock on the gate!” he exclaimed.
“Can you call for help? You have a walkie talkie right?”
“I left it back at the guard house.”
Mr. Abdul was the skinniest of all the security guards in the estate but he was certainly stronger than he looked. After taking a deep breath, he swooped me up into his arms and carried me to the gate. He peered through the fence to see if anyone was around and sighed.
“Okay boy, I’m going to need you to shout with me. As loud as you can.”
It felt like eternity. I had to stop several times to catch my breath. But after about 10 minutes the other security guard on shift came to our rescue.
“Abang! I was wondering where the hell you went!” said Mr. Yang.
“Long story, I’ll tell you later. Can you go get a wire cutter from the store room?” said Mr. Abdul.
Mr. Yang nodded his head a few times before running off.
Mr. Abdul turned to me and shook his head slightly.
“Okay, boy. Now you tell me everything.”
It was 8pm by the time I got home and my parents looked as if they were ready to paint my skin with the bamboo cane when Mr. Abdul showed them the bicycle lock and explained what had happened. But instead of calming down, my father’s eyes became even redder with rage.
“Abdul, where does this Joshua stay?”
As the two men left the house, my father turned around and hissed.
“Go shower. Eat your dinner. And go straight to bed. No TV for you tonight.”
I wasn’t about to argue with him.
The next afternoon, after I had alighted from the school bus, Mr. Abdul walked up to me and checked my bandaged ankle.
“Doesn’t look too serious. It should be good as new in no time,” he said.
I smiled and thanked him for saving me.
“Well your dad sure has got quite a temper. He made quite a scene last night,” said Mr. Abdul.
Apparently my father had confronted Joshua father’s rather politely, but the latter had vehemently denied that his son had anything to do with the incident, even after Mr. Abdul testified that it was indeed Joshua who shackled the gate. This sent my father into a rage and he crashed his palm so forcefully onto a cabinet that its top panel collapsed, sending the vase that was sitting on it crashing to the ground.
“Anyway, I’m sure Joshua is getting punished like he deserved. I would definitely rotan him until he mabok if he was my son!”
I nodded, with a grin.
“I cannot believe he actually punched your face and stomped on your ankle. Anyway you take this as a lesson as well. Assaulting people is a crime. The police can arrest you for such things!” said Mr. Abdul as he waved goodbye.
I did get my revenge after all.
And I didn’t even lift a finger to do so.