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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The Art of Contentment

Ma low res

“We tie it up so that it knows this is home,” says Mr Sha Ma about his pet kitten, which is tied to a large slab of rock beside their makeshift stove, which is essentially a hole in the ground of their living room cum kitchen.

It’s probably the sort of statement that would rile most animal lovers, but up here in the mountains, some 3200m above sea level, one could perhaps forgive his seemingly primitive ways. The kitten’s sibling dashed into the compound a few minutes later and they started to play. This other cat, according to Mr Sha Ma, was raised the same way. It now “knows” this is home and though it roams free during the day, it always comes back home.

The Sha Mas are from the Yi ethnic minority group in Shaxi. They make a living as farmers but because of the high altitude the type of crops they can actually grow are limited to potatoes, buckwheat and what the Chinese are saying is the new Viagra – the maca plant. They also rear lambs and pigs, some of which are ridiculously larger than a motorbike with a sidecar. To call their home spartan might be a severe understatement. There is no sanitation system – they do their business with Mother Nature as the unwilling voyeur. There is no waste disposal system – they simply gather all the garbage and burn it.

Mr Sha Ma tells me that on a “good year”, he makes 10,000RMB, which translates to about US$1610. For a city-dweller like myself who had been complaining about taking a massive pay-cut to relocate to Shanghai, that figure was incomprehensible to me. Even my monthly salary back in Singapore some eight years ago when I first entered the work force was considerably more than that.

“Are you happy living here? Isn’t life tough up here?” I asked.

He chuckled, gave the question some thought and said: “It’s not really a question of happiness. I’m already used to this way of life. Move to the city? Perhaps. Why not? I guess life there could be more comfortable.”

Mrs Sha Ma then proceeded to retrieve the potatoes she threw into the pit. One by one, she peeled the skin off and handed us our share, seemingly unfazed by the heat. She jabbed the charcoals with a tree branch, shifting them around before returning to her seat. Those potatoes. Quite possibly the best I’ve ever had.

And I don’t even like potatoes.

The main course was a stew of preserved pork and cognitive dissonance. I wasn’t at a swanky restaurant along The Bund. The meal didn’t cost me several hundred dollars. It certainly wasn’t prepared by a master chef. But that murky brown stew laced with garlic and herbs was the best damn meal I had ever had since I came to China almost a year ago.

As we descended the mountain later in the day, a discourse raged within me. What exactly is contentment? Is staying content a sign of weakness? Is it due to a lack of ambition? I could not even begin to think of living in such a manner. It would’ve been, to me, settling for too little.

And then it dawned on me that I’ve simply been too plugged in to the system. Back home in Singapore, having a “Head of” or “Director” on your name card was indicative of your worth in a society that apparently values meritocracy over everything else. We craved for recognition, for power, for money, for things that don’t actually make life holistically better. Everyone wanted to be a home owner. Everyone wanted a car even though it costs close to S$100,000 these days just to buy a entry-level Japanese make.

And just what exactly do we want all these things for? Because everyone else has them, I suppose.

Those were the reasons I left Singapore for China, not to make a name for myself in the latter but because I needed a new perspective to life. But yet there I was, returning to the very same chains that had me shackled.

As the saying goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Based on that logic, we are stuck in a never-ending vicious cycle of greed, likely masquerading as ambition. There is an often indiscernible line between the two but I reckon we all realise the difference when we’re faced with the dilemma. I know I have.

I’ve come to learn that ambition and contentment are not mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as having “too little”. There is no prerequisite for life achievements before you can call it a day and hang up your boots. You just drop anchor, stand your ground, and make a conscious decision to withdraw from the rat race. Sometimes, isolation is the best form of empowerment. It allows us to drown out the noises and hear our own voice. This voice, I believe, is true ambition.

And just like Mr Sha Ma and his cat, perhaps all we need is to tie contentment down before we can let our ambitions roam free.

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The Longest Affair

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 presetI’ve fallen in and out of love with her for the longest time. She was my childhood sweetheart. Back then, the very mention of her name stirred an explicable euphoria within, one that I was, and still am, madly addicted to. She was an uncanny source of excitement and motivation. Most importantly, she was my excuse to dream.

Her name, is Writing.

While everyone around me groaned during essay assignments back in secondary school, I had always quietly relished those times in class when we were made to weave a story out of nothing. There was usually no particular topic, and we were given free reign over the content. And therein was the beauty of it – that ephemeral sense of empowerment; that god-factor which was bestowed onto you, where you could make anything you want happen. Worlds were created, blood was shed, hearts were broken, and miracles were but slivers of ink away.

I stopped writing after I left secondary school. There was this period of infatuation with music but my tardy fingers were hopeless on a guitar, or on any musical instrument for that matter. My voice was too low to reach most notes, and I couldn’t read music scores even if my life depended on it. The next best thing, I thought, was to become a Radio DJ. Adolescent naivety led me to Mass Communications in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, the place where I met some of the bestest friends I’ll ever have in this lifetime.

Year 3 was like a dream come true. I got to co-host a campus radio show every Friday with my best friend. No one actually gave a damn about us, but that didn’t matter. We were the kings of convenient pseudo-stardom, and at 18 years of age, that was more than we could ask for. The only form of writing, creatively at least, was in advertising class. I loved churning out taglines. But somehow it lacked a certain freedom.

You had to write to sell. The client had the right to yell. Somehow everything became dull.

Writing reappeared after two-and-a-half years in the army. She spoke to me and asked for another chance. I didn’t really know what direction my life was taking at that point in time, so I said yes, as if I was doing her a favour. I went to Sydney to study and took creative writing classes, falling in love with her all over again. I did so well in my first semester my lecturer even pulled me aside to give advice she said she normally wouldn’t dispense to students.

“I’m doing this because you have a gift. And I want to see you make the most of it,” she said.

That one line married me and Writing.

I scored a distinction that year, but I couldn’t do the same in the advanced module. It had something to do with keeping my thoughts under control, how everything needed to be coherent, because when we write, it’s not about fulfilling a personal agenda, but telling a story that the reader can understand. It was a wonderful journey, but somehow long the way I got lost. I got selfish. I got too complacent.

When I joined the workforce, my primary objective was to secure a copywriting job with an ad agency. Writing was not too happy with my decision. She felt I was abandoning my love for a tampered form of creativity.

Funny, I ended up at a wire news agency. As a photographic sub-editor.

Here, I learnt about the beauty of the still image. I was convinced that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. I also came to realise that in some instances, a picture was literally worth a thousand words. Freelance writing didn’t pay much. Photography, on the other, paid several times more. Charmed by pragmatism, I told Writing that we could not longer be together. I took up photography and stopped blogging almost instantly. I began to love everything about lights, the technicalities behind the lens, shutter and aperture. The money wasn’t too bad for someone of my standard. A full-day wedding shoot could get me about $1,500. That was A LOT of stories that I’d have to write.

Writing came back again when I left my job at the wire agency in search of a new challenge. She just sat there, in my new office cubicle at the local newspaper, and winked at me. She wasn’t angry, just amused that our paths had crossed once again. I said nothing, flashed a meek smile and gave her a hug. We were good together again, a match made in heaven. I had never been so in love with her. I wrote some of my best stuff at the newspaper. And then, after two years, we drifted. I wanted something more. I needed yet another new challenge. She heaved a sigh of dismay and kissed me goodbye. No words were exchanged, but I did catch a glimpse of a wry smile.

Writing and I continued to meet occasionally when I started my job at the magazines. As much as I enjoyed telling people what to write now, she was often at the back of my head. Come think of it, she is always at the back of my head, my soul, my very existence.

I love her curves in rhythm and intonation. I love her cleverly concealed intentions. I love her ability to make my mind race with adrenaline. I love the way she communicates, drawing my eyes from left to right to left to right, before planting a kiss and taking that moment to a full stop.

We’re back together again now since I left my job at the magazine. Closer and stronger than ever.

She knows that I know this might not last forever.

But I also know that she knows I will always be back for her.

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the flowchart

He stood by the sliding glass door, a makeshift whiteboard that allowed him to scrawl a smiley face on the shrinking patch of condensed breath, and looked out into the streets. It was a dull winter’s afternoon. The skies were grey and the rattling leaves gave away the unforgiving breeze that awaited outside. The flower vendor by the estate entrance usually added a dash of colour to the uninspiring view from his balcony. But he wasn’t there today.

It has been days since he left home, partially because he wanted to save money, partially because he wasn’t quite ready to face the world. It has been six weeks since he left his job, and having just completed a series of freelance assignments, the sudden lull in activity was beginning to unnerve him. He had never in his life been without a job for more than four weeks, and this new reality was scary, but at the same time liberating.

He cautiously slid the door open, just slightly, and stuck his fingers through the gap. Cold. Probably about 4 degrees Celsius. He was good with such things. Estimating useless bits of daily facts. He could guess the time of the day by just looking at the sky, and he would never be more than five minutes off the mark.
Often he wondered how successful he would be if he could translate that redundant talent into something the real world prized.

This door, he thought, marked the boundary between a slowly dissipating solace and an unideal situation; between warm comfort and the biting chill of reality.

The last of smiley faces on the cold glass had now vanished. He closed the door and lit a cigarette. There was much to do, much to think about. In his head was an ever-expanding flowchart. Arrows. Solutions. More arrows. Questions. Even more arrows. Doubt. More questions. Too many arrows.

He realised that he needed to draw this chart out. Perhaps the answer was somewhere in there.

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