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.

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Short Stories, Singapore, Writing

Mr. Samy the barber

 

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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.

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