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.
“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?”
“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.