Short Stories, Writing

Make-belief

childhood

By the time I had moved into Normanton Park, my father had already left the army and the estate was no longer an exclusive abode for military officers. He used to be a captain in a combat engineer battalion, and I didn’t know what these type of soldiers did as he never talked his army life.

I imagined combat engineers as warriors who fought with screwdrivers and spanners and wore those yellow hardhats.

The only remnants of his military life were a wooden replica of a bolt-action Enfield rifle and a ceremonial sword, both of which were hung on the largest wall in the living room. The sword was heavy and the rust made it difficult to unsheathe so I wasn’t very keen on playing with it. I stuck to playing with my plastic katanas instead.

The rifle, on the other hand, was something I was fascinated with. I occasionally fiddled with the bolt, imagining that I was loading a bullet and squeezing the trigger that didn’t budge. Eager to role-play as a soldier after watching a World War II film, I once lifted the gun off the hooks on the wall so that I could drag it back to my room. It was so heavy that I lost control of the object, sending it crashing into the porcelain vase on the pedestal next to it. My father got angry. Very angry.

When he was mad at me, the world around me would shake. He had a very, very loud voice, the kind I imagined could shatter glass windows and awaken a person who’s been in a coma for the past twenty years. Even the discipline master in school, who loved shouting at the naughty kids in school, sounded like a meek mouse compared to my father.

He bought me a toy rifle a few days later. I suppose it was his way of telling me never to touch the replica again.

Though my father was no longer in the army, the way he approached things in life was still very military-esque. He would scold me for spilling any of my food on the table, even if it was just a small drop of sauce. I had to be in bed by 10 pm. Not a minute later. If we had to leave home at 6 pm for dinner, I was expected to have my shoes on by 5.58 pm and waiting by the front door.

Strangely enough, my father left the corporal punishment to my mother. I thought maybe he decided this was the best way to go about things because he might end up killing me if he had to get involved. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because my mother was pretty vicious with the cane.

My parents didn’t fight often. But when they did, things tend to get destroyed. My father never once hit my mother, but he did hit a lot of other things.

He once pounded his fist on the table so hard that one of the legs cracked. He once threw a paperweight so forcefully at the wardrobe that he obliterated a section of the door. Our maid spent half the day removing all the wooden shards from our clothes.

My father was a man of few words. He didn’t like answering questions either. One of my favourite dinner dishes at home was pork slices braised in a dark soy sauce and sesame oil and topped with shredded ginger. One evening, I asked my father what exactly it was we were always eating.

“What is this?” I said, pointing to a piece of meat between my chopsticks.

“That’s meat.”

“What is meat?”

“Meat is meat lah!”

I didn’t dare question any further. For a good six months I kept thinking that pork was simply called meat. It was only when my Aunt Margaret intervened that I realised I was duped.

“Hey, what are eating?” she said during one of the family gatherings.

“I’m eating meat, auntie.”

“Yes I can see that, but what kind of meat?”

“Meat.”

“Yes, but is it chicken, pork or beef?”

“It’s just meat. Don’t ask silly questions. My father would’ve scolded you!”

My father taught me how to swim when I was seven. Many of the other kids in the estate took lessons at the swimming complex in the estate but my father said such things were just a waste of money.

“I’ll teach you how to swim in half the time and at zero the cost,” he proudly declared before ordering me to change into my trunks.

Before I learned how to swim, I spent nearly every weekend waddling in the shallow pool. I loved splashing around and re-enacting scenes from martial arts films where the characters would be using their inner powers against one another. I loved the feeling of hitting the water surface whenever I pretended to be hit by a bullet.

That slight pain when I fell flat on my back was invigorating. It made my make-believe scenario seemed a little more real.

The day I learned how to swim was also the day I almost drowned. I heard that some kids learned how to swim by getting dunked into the deep end of the pool.

I dunked myself into the deep end of the pool.

After teaching me how to tread water with my legs, my father left me sitting on the rails at the side of the pool and told me to wait as he wanted to do a couple of laps. He was a big fellow, with arms so large and sturdy I could hang on them like how I would on the monkey bars at the playground. But despite his size, he swam rather gracefully. I was envious.

Looks really easy. Just swing your arms and flutter your feet. You can do this.

Before my mind could thoroughly process that thought, I jumped back into the water. I knew what I was supposed to do, but my mind didn’t seem to be in sync with my body. Water started swirling down my throat and nose as I desperately flailed my arms like a crab that just had a chopstick shoved between its eyes (my grandma killed crabs this way).

“I told you to wait, didn’t I,” he said sternly as lifted me above the water’s surface.

“I thought it was going to be easy.”

“You think you know how to swim just because you learned how to trap water for a few minutes?”

I coughed out more water. It felt like a really long worm was wriggling in the passage between my nose and throat.

“Son, you cannot just skip the steps. You have to work for everything in life!”

My parents always repeated that last phrase. I assumed this thing called “work” was really important because my father had to occasionally leave home after dinner to go to work. My mother was a manager in a factory that sold bedsheets and she often had to do overtime too.

But I liked it when she had to do overtime, because that meant I had more time to play. She would always make me do assessment books or revise what I learned in school whenever she was home.

To keep me occupied, my parents plied me with books. They said that reading was good. I had no qualms with that. I loved reading. Sometimes my father would even scold me for doing nothing but reading. Adults were just so hard to please.

The bookshelf at home was filled with Enid Blyton books and my favourite was the Mr. Meddle’s Muddles series. I could not believe anyone could be as silly and kaypoh as Mr. Meddles. The other book I liked was The Secret Seven. I had always been a fan of detective stories. Uncovering mysteries excited me.

My favourite author was Roald Dahl. George’s Marvellous Medicine was such a delight to read that I finished it. Thrice. In three days. I wondered if I could create a concoction and feed it to my grandmother. I would of course alter the recipe so that she doesn’t disappear. I just wanted to mute her. I think my grandfather would’ve agreed.

The book that left the deepest impression was Matilda. Though she was a girl, I could imagine myself in her shoes. We were both scrawny kids. We both had a nasty teacher in school we hated. For me, it was Mrs. Alphonso, a bespectacled, white-haired lady who loved scolding the class and pinching students who misbehaved. She also looked exactly like how I imagined Agatha Trunchbull to be. I once forgot to do my homework and she flung my jotter book at my chest. Sometimes she would pull my ears like how farmers milked cows. My tears would instantly fall.

But unlike Matilda, I was not capable of telekinesis. I know because I tried. I had stared at a ping pong ball for twenty minutes, willing it to move. My maid thought I had gone mad and quickly phoned my mother in the office.

“Are you okay? Why are you in a daze?” asked my mother over the phone.

“I was trying to be Matilda. You know, the girl from the book. She managed to move a cup using her mind.”

“You siao ah? Stop staring and go do your homework.”

“The teacher didn’t give us homework today.”

“That new maths assessment book I bought you. Do the next section. I’ll check your work when I come home.”

I thought adults were such boring creatures. It seemed like the only things in life they knew were work, homework and housework.

“If you want to live a good life, you have to work hard,” said my mother.

“But what if I work hard but still don’t have a good life?”

“Nonsense. If you work hard you will definitely have a good future. Don’t argue with me. If you are not hardworking, you won’t get good results in school and one day you’ll end up sweeping the roads. Do you want to be a road sweeper?”

I guess I didn’t want to. Sweeping leaves didn’t seem like much fun.

I didn’t like studying but it was worth it, because in exchange for As and Bs at school, I got toys. Getting a B average for exams and major tests in school got me the cheaper toys that cost between $10 and $20. These were mostly action figures.

Scoring As got me the big-ticket items, like the huge pirate ship from Lego, the awesome Starmax Bomber from Starcom, and my most prized possession of them all – the massive Devastator robot that was made up of a bunch of smaller Decepticon robots. I held an open house for three days just so my friends could come to my place to play with it.

By the end of Primary 6, I had so many toys that my mother had to buy two huge wooden crates to store them. Lego, MASK, Batman, Exo Squad, Terminator, He-Man, Starcom, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Swamp Thing, Captain Planet, Spiderman, X-Men.

You name it. I had it.

Well, except Superman. He looked really stupid wearing his red underwear on the outside.

Toys utterly fascinated me because my favourite heroes were here in the real world with me. I could touch them and manipulate their every move. I could decide who they fought against. I was the commander of their fates. If I didn’t like how a particular scenario in the cartoon played out, I would act out that same scene on my table and change the ending.

I could make it my story.

I liked putting heroes like Batman in fights he could never win. He would have to fight Bebop, Rocksteady, Swamp Thing, He-Man and Captain Planet before eventually losing to The Joker.

I didn’t like how the good guys always won the day.

I hated how there’s only one type of ending.

Advertisements
Standard
Short Stories

The home on the hill

Untitled-1

 

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?

“Boy!”

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.

Standard
Short Stories, Singapore, Writing

Smoking kills

Processed with VSCO with p5 preset

The one thing from my childhood I remember the best is the smells.

In the mornings, the scent of freshly baked bread from the confectionery store across the road would assail my nose when I was waiting for the school bus. In the afternoons, it was the smell of food from the hawker center, in particular, the sweet scent of fried carrot cake, the kind doused with a saccharine black sauce.

At another corner of the neighbourhood it was the aroma of spices that came from a shop selling flaky, triangular curry puffs. In the evenings, the neighbourhood was always filled with the smell of home-cooked food and burning joss sticks.

Every day around the time my favourite Aksi Mat Yoyo variety show was screened, Grandpa would plant three joss sticks in this bronze container that hung outside the window of the living room. I was always fascinated with this container – it looked as if two mythical creatures were attempting to charge out on either ends before its heads were fossilised by a sudden downpour of rapidly cooling lava.

When Grandpa was done with this, he would plant more joss sticks into another container in the cabinet above the television that also housed some sort of deity. Then, without fail, I would hear him light up a cigarette in his room. Around this time, Grandma would be nearly done with her cooking. We would know because she always yelled for Grandpa to set the table.

The tantalising scent of sesame oil, the aromatic but pungent smell of sambal belachan, the dense and slightly acrid smell of incense and the strangely comforting odour of cigarette smoke would then begin their dance, each twirling around one another as they vied for my attention.

I learned to associate this smorgasbord of smells with happiness. It meant that the day was winding down. It meant that night was about to fall. And all the fun things usually happened at night, like the free mobile clinic that my Grandparents used to take me to all the time. I used to suffer from asthma.

I found great joy in stomping on the narrow metal steps that led up to the entrance of the white medical trailer, as if I was adding drum beats to the droning buzz of the nearby diesel generator. Inside, I revelled at the sight of the countless medication bottles that came in all sorts of colours.

I also found the smell of medication very calming. It made me feel safe. It made me feel that everything was going to be alright. Well, at least that was what Grandma kept telling me.

“Sir, are you still smoking in the house?” asked the doctor, a diminutive Chinese man who had spectacles so large and thick it seemed like he was wearing goggles.

“I know you are. I can smell it from here,” he continued, without looking at Grandpa.

The doctor’s eyes were magnified by the lenses, which reminded me of those weird mirrors I’d come across at the monthly fun fair in the open field. I giggled to myself but ended up in a coughing fit.

“Second-hand smoke is not good for your grandchild, especially since he has asthma,” said the doctor, who was busy scribbling words onto a small white card.

Grandpa did not say a word. He just nodded.

“And you should quit. Smoking kills, you know?”

Grandpa and I left the trailer shortly after with a small plastic bag containing a bottle of cough syrup and slender tubes of black liquid made from medicinal herbs. On the way home, we bumped into Grandma, who had just finished perming her hair at the salon two streets down. She looked like Ronald McDonald, though I never did dare to tell her that.

“So what did the doctor say?” asked Grandma.

“Take the medicine on time. Quit smoking.”

“Not like you’re ever going to quit.”

He just shrugged his shoulders.

Grandpa was a man of few words. My interactions with him were generally non-verbal. I liked it when he lifted me up from behind and placed my two feet onto his before walking around the house. I felt like I was character from Exosquad and he was my exo-skeleton. Together, we were invincible. He also liked to pass me phone cards that could be used at pay phones, knowing how I was utterly fascinated by his massive collection, stored on the shelves hidden behind the mirror at the dressing table.

Once every few days, I’d swing open this mirror and take these cards out to admire all the different designs. I would also pull a cigarette out from his golden packet of Dunhill Red and run it along my nose.

I loved the sweet seductive scent of tobacco. This was my favourite smell during my childhood.

“Can I try one, Grandpa?” I said.

“No. You’re too young.”

I hated the answer. I didn’t understand why people had to be of a certain age before they could do things. It was silly. I was desperate to grow up and be an adult.

“The doctor said that smoking kills, is that true?” I asked.

“I’m still alive, right?” he sniggered.

I guess that made sense. After all, things only died after they were hit on the head with a slipper, like cockroaches and wasps. No one in the Ninja Turtles ever died. Not the heroes in a hard shell. Not the bad guys like Shredder and Krang. It was the same for He-Man. And Tom and Jerry. And Mighty Mouse. I suppose people just get bruised. Only insects died. I’m not an insect. And neither is Grandpa.

One day when Grandpa went across the road to buy TOTO and 4D, I revisited his collection of phone cards. I laid them on the bed in a 10 by 10 square and stood back to admire the grandeur of the scene. I then took a cigarette and placed it between my lips. Then I struck the matchstick against the dark brown side of the box. Nothing happened. I struck it again, creating tiny sparks that looked like how the National Day fireworks would during the last few seconds of the show. The third strike produced a flame.

As the end of the cigarette started smouldering, I held the stick just like how Grandpa normally would, with the tips of his thumb and the “rude” finger, and sucked on it. The taste in my mouth was nothing like the smell I was used to. It made me cough and retch.

“Ah boy, why are you coughing again ah? I told you not to drink cold drinks, right?” said Grandma as she walked into the room

Yao mou kao chor ah?!” she shrieked.

I didn’t know if she was mad at me for messing up her bed or being topless (it was a really hot day). But I had never seen her so mad before.

She snatched the cigarette from me, left the room and returned within just a few seconds, with a cane in hand. That was the day I found out that smoking came with painful consequences.

But despite the searing sensation on my arms and legs, I lived. Just like all my favourite cartoon characters, I survived. Just like them, I had bruises to show for my exploits. I was still alive.

Grandpa was right. Smoking doesn’t kill.

But boy oh boy, I reckon Grandma could.

Standard
Short Stories, Singapore, Writing

Mr. Samy the barber

 

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset

Between the ages of one and five, I spent the weekdays at my grandparents’ public housing flat in Eunos Crescent.

There was a barber shop across the road called Bugs Bunny that grandma and grandpa would take me to once every few weeks. The place just smelled like talcum powder. Lots and lots of powder. I thought that must be the reason why most of my friends hated having their hair cut.

I didn’t really fancy Bugs Bunny. In fact, I hated carrots. But I enjoyed my haircuts.

Because the barber named Mr. Samy would always put up a show.

Near the end of every haircut, he would dip a small but stout brush into a cup of water before dabbing my sideburns with it. The experience was always somewhat unnerving. The water was always slightly cold. It always made my hair stand. It always made me cringe.

I hated that feeling. But I always told myself to bear with it because the performance was up next.

Mr. Samy would then swing the razor blade around like those villains from Hong Kong movies. He would do so exactly three times. The sound of the blade entering and exiting its sheath was like a drumroll indicating the imminent arrival of the pièce de résistance. I loved it. I lapped it all up.

His face bore no expression when he swept the blade across his palms. Left, right, left, right, left, left, right, right. It was always in this order. He would then plant the thumb of his left hand firmly onto the side of my head before the cool blade worked its way down. The noise of hair getting displaced sounded like trees growing, their branches slowly fanning out in all directions before the trunk suddenly shot toward the sky.

Mr. Samy never once bled from this outrageous feat. He reminded me of the triceratops, one of my favourite dinosaurs, which I learned from cartoons had incredibly tough skin. I wondered what type of skin I had.

One day, I decided to find out. While grandma was chatting with Mr. Samy, I got off the chair and sneakily opened the drawer in front of me. I turned around as I reached for the razor blade, checking to see if the two adults were looking. They weren’t. I remember grandma complaining about the new price of the haircut and how Mr. Samy just laughed.

I seized the opportunity and ran the cold blade down my palm, and it made me wonder if it was a magical blade that only Mr. Samy could wield. I watched with intrigue as the flesh parted and blood oozed out. It looked exactly like how the paste within my favourite red bean bun would flow out when I tore it in half.

By the time Mr. Samy and my grandma realised what had happened, the blood was already dripping onto the floor. One drop fell onto the pristine white school shoe on my left feet as the barber frantically stuck a wad of tissue paper over the wound. A dull ache echoed through my palm as he applied pressure. My grandma was now squatting on the pale green ceramic floor as she wiped the blood off the surface. When the bleeding stopped, Mr. Samy took a plaster out from the wooden cabinet at the back of shop and handed it to grandma.

Five minutes later, it was business as usual. Grandma stuck the huge plaster on my palm as I sucked on a grape-flavoured Hacks sweet that Mr. Samy had given me, probably in an attempt to prevent me from crying.

But I was never going to cry. I was jealous.

“Tell me, why do you not bleed?” I said.

“It’s a secret. You’ll understand when you’re older,” replied Mr. Samy.

 

The next day, I found grandpa outside the toilet in the kitchen, applying a layer of white paint to the stained school shoe. He patted my head as I stood beside him and took in the second hand smoke from his Dunhill Reds.

He was meticulous about the application of the white paint, rotating the shoe in every possible direction to ensure that every part was evenly coated. When he had used up the final drop of paint from the bottle, he carefully ran a shoelace through just two holes in each shoe and tied a knot with the two ends before hanging them on the laundry pole.

I wondered if a wind would blow the shoes twelve stories down. I wondered if the wet paint would drip and splatter on someone’s face, and how that someone might think he just got hit by bird poop. I giggled to myself.

“I heard from Mama you cut yourself with Mr. Samy’s razor last night,” he said, passing the empty bottle to me and pointing to the rubbish bin.

I nodded.

“Did it hurt?” said grandpa as he tapped the end of his cigarette into a tin can that used to contain luncheon meat.

“Just a little.”

“Well now you know not to do it again, right?”

I nodded. I looked at my palm. The plaster that was around it had already started to lose its grip. I cautiously peeled it off to see the wound. It tickled more than it hurt. Grandpa gently took my hand and examined the wound before sticking the plaster back on.

“Don’t take it off yet. Keep it covered. The plaster keeps bad things away,” he said.

I wanted to ask him what he meant exactly, but a sound from the living room interrupted my train of thought. I smiled and took off. The next episode of He-Man had started.

I loved that cartoon so much I always demanded for a new action figure whenever my parents brought me out during the weekends. The only one I didn’t get was Sheila.

Girls were just irritating. And she wore a snake over her head. I hated snakes and everything that resembled one. Lizards were gross too.

I would often act out scenes from the cartoon and pretend to be He-Man. My sword was a roll of cellophane paper and my uncle’s bolster would be Skeletor. I liked to pretend that I was losing the fight before yelling “By the power of Greyskull, I have the power!” and turning the tide of the battle.

Saying that line made me feel as if I was indestructible like He-Man, a hero that will never bleed.

And then it struck me, Mr. Samy was He-Man.

A few weeks later when it was time for my haircut again, I sprinted to the barbershop and left my grandpa trailing behind. I wanted to tell Mr. Samy that I didn’t need to grow that much older to discover his secret.

But Mr. Samy was not there. I wondered if he was out fighting Skeletor and saving the universe. Or was he on a date with Sheila? Why he would find her pretty was really beyond me.

I noticed that Grandpa looked distressed while talking to the other man in the shop, sighing and shaking his head every few seconds. He then carried me onto the barber chair.

“Mr. Yazid will cut your hair today, okay?” said Grandpa.

“But I only want Mr. Samy. Where is he?”

Grandpa and Mr. Yazid looked at me, then looked at each other.

“Something very bad has happened to Mr. Samy so he needs to see the doctor. I will cut your hair today, okay? I’ll make you very handsome,” said Mr. Yazid.

Dejected, I slunk back into my seat and let the barber do his work. There was no performance this time around. The water that he used to dab my sideburns felt icy cold and the blade he used felt coarse against my skin.

When grandpa was paying the barber, I opened the wooden cabinet at the back of the shop and grabbed a bunch of plasters. Before I left, I tugged at Mr. Yazid’s khaki pants and passed them to him.

“Oh. Thank you. But why do I need them?” said Mr. Yazid.

“It’s not for you. Can you give them to Mr. Samy? My grandfather said that plasters keep bad things away.”

I never saw Mr. Samy again.

I always thought He-Man could never be defeated.

Standard
Short Stories

Puff Daddy

Processed with VSCO with t1 preset

“This, is life,” said Ronald, pointing to the cigarette in his hand.

“You shouldn’t be smoking, papa,” replied Eli.

It was a rhetorical statement. The fact that this conversation was taking place on the hospital rooftop said it all.

Ronald took a long drag at a cigarette which had its filter peeled off before scratching his hand. The catheter was really beginning to annoy him.

“I don’t get why people smoke with filters.”

“I suppose it’s healthier?”

Ronald broke out in laughter.

“Doctor Ong is going to go mental when he finds out you’ve been smoking.”

“Oh come on. What harm can one cigarette do? Even if I survive this goddamn cancer I’m still going to die someday, no?”

As cryptic as that sounded, Eli simply nodded his head and smiled.

And then began the tirade.

“You see, son, like the fire within that never loses its single-minded focus to incinerate everything in its path, time doesn’t take a break and wait for you to finish whatever other business you have going on. It just keeps going, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Stub it out and relight the fag at your discretion, sure, whatever – it’s still going to end someday. So therein lies the question – what are you going to do? Are you going to put your lips to the filter and savour each puff before there’s nothing left? Or will you simply do nothing and watch as time devours everything?”

Eli said nothing, his eyes transfixed on the graceful ascent of the smoke into the night sky. He wondered if that was how a soul dissipated when one died.

“People like to say that smoking kills as if they’re immortals. They squeal when smoke comes their way. ‘Oh my god, you are going to fucking kill me with your second-hand smoke,’ say these fools, as if they were never going to die in the first place. They’re all deluded. Fucking deluded. This shit doesn’t kill, goddamnit. Being alive, kills. Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re dying every single minute we’re alive. The countdown started that very moment we entered this world. Life itself is a death sentence. Oh, the fucking irony of it all. So make no mistake, my son, for the end is nigh. We were all born to die.”

“Is that the medication talking? I think we should head back down before the nurses find out you escaped the ward again,” said Eli.

“I’m sorry you’re here. I’m sorry this is what you have to hear. I shouldn’t have ejaculated in your mother’s vagina 28 years ago. Blame me.”

“Oh god, Papa. Stop it.”

Ronald stubbed his cigarette out and threw his arm over Eli.

“Fine, let’s go. I’m getting a little woozy.”

“I’m gonna miss you when you’re not around,” said Eli.

“And that’s why you should never have kids,” laughed Ronald.

“You should never have to put anyone through such misery. If I could, I would strangle your mother to death first so that she doesn’t have to see me go. Come think of it, I should’ve murdered that bitch a long time ago!”

Eli turned to his father’s gaunt face and the smell of tobacco suddenly rushed through his nostrils. He was no stranger to his father’s eccentric rants. But today it felt as if Ronald was trying to overcompensate for something. For a fear of his imminent demise.

He placed a reassuring arm around his father’s waist and the two made their way to the exit.

The pair managed to get back to the ward without rousing suspicion from the night shift nurses. Ronald fluffed his pillow before lying down and reached over the hand rails for his discman.

“I can’t believe you’re still using that antique,” said Eli.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” smiled Ronald.

“Alright son, I’m going to drift off now. You text me when you arrive in China. Don’t call, it’s expensive.”

“I’ll come back often to see you. Whenever I can. I promise.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m not going anywhere. Just be back for Christmas. I’ll see you then.”

Eli forced a smile and nodded. He reluctantly picked up his bag and waved Ronald goodbye.

As Eli’s shadow disappeared from the corridor, Ronald placed his favourite Teresa Teng CD into the player and hit the play button. But the only sound that came through was a constant wheezing from within.

He smacked the player twice and shook it gently for a few seconds before the sounds of Goodbye My Love streamed through the earphones.

The disc stopped spinning a minute later, but Ronald did not bother to rectify the problem.

He figured that some things were just not worth the effort anymore.

Standard