Filed under: Short Story | Tags: English short story, Singapore fiction, Woodleigh station
“Damn it, there are no taxis around”, said David Lim twirling the stud on his left ear lobe with his forefinger and thumb. The traffic flow along the road had thinned, as expected on a Sunday night. The footpath was devoid of pedestrians.
Tony Chia looked at his watch. “It is eleven o’clock. These guys are waiting to get the midnight surcharge”. There was an eerie silence around them except for the occasional whirring of motorcycle engines.
The humidity of the warm night engulfed the two teenagers, who had spent the best part of the last fifteen minutes waiting along the roadside to hail a taxi.
“I have to be back home by half past. You shouldn’t have spent so much time at the Seven -eleven store snuggling up to that girl at the counter,” said David, wagging his finger at Tony.
“I was not talking to her. I had to wait for her to be at the cash counter to buy cigarettes. She doesn’t ask for identification – the other old man does. Here, take a puff. It’ll calm you down.” Tony handed him the lighted cigarette from his mouth.
“Nothing’ll calm me down. I’ll be in shit if the probation officer calls home to check on me. What do we do?” asked David. David had got into trouble with the law when he was caught shoplifting. Since it was the first offence, he had been put under probation. Both the teenagers were premature school leavers, who spent the days sleeping and the nights roaming around aimlessly at shopping complexes.
“Call home and tell them some story. It works with my mom,”said Tony. Tony was the only son of a mother who doted on him, especially after his father had deserted the family. This dolorous event caused Tony to lose all interest in his studies; the promising student ended up playing truant frequently for which he was expelled from school. Mother had tried to enroll him at many non-academic courses, but none succeeded because of his obdurate nature.
“And get an earful from my old man. Don’t know who is worse – my dad or that probation officer?” said David. David knew that his father’s main concern was not about him, but that the parents will be held to account if their ward broke the probation curfew. The probation officer had given this peremptory warning to all legal guardians at the Police station.
“We’ll try the train and then take a bus from the interchange. The new Woodleigh station is round the corner.” Tony pointed to the alluring bright lights which adorned the station entrance.
“Will I be home by half-past?”
“What choice have you got?” asked Tony, tossing the cigarette on the footpath and stubbing it out with the heel of his right shoe. They hastened their steps and walked to the station. The escalator to the underground station started rolling when they set their feet on it.
“It’s much cooler here. The next time, I won’t wear this jacket- should have worn shorts and turtleneck singlet like you, “said Tony. While Tony was fastidious about his appearance and dressed decorously, David was lackadaisical about his appearance.
The new station appeared spick and span. The air was redolent with the smell of a fresh coat of new paint. At the platform entrance, they both whizzed past after tapping their fare cards at the entry gates.
“Your fare card beeped twice. Whose concession card are you using?” asked Tony.
“Definitely not my dad’s senior citizen card. It’s a student card that I found at the bus interchange last night,” said David. He looked at it and said, “It belongs to a Nooralizah .”
“Careful- she might have reported the loss of the card,” said Tony.
“Well, she hasn’t yet and there is still seven dollars and forty cents in it. My luck hasn’t run out yet”, David laughed.
Just as they entered the platform, the chimes announcing the impending closing of the doors of the waiting train sounded. They tried in vain to rush into the train carriage before the doors closed.
“What do we do now?” asked David with an air of resignation when the train pulled away.
“What else? Wait for the next train.”
Both of them took their seats beside each other on one of the marble-lined stone benches in the middle of the platform
The platform was completely deserted. The teenagers could not help noticing the lone passenger who had got out of the train at the station. He was what you could describe as an anomaly in appearance. The middle-aged dark-skinned bespectacled stranger wore a white long-sleeved shirt with an ill-fitting loose blue necktie. His dark blue long pants with a tight belt around his waist accentuated his paunch. He wore white sports shoes with white socks. He was balding with streaks of gray here and there on whatever hair was still left on the head. The thick graying moustache gave him a stern look.
“ Hey, this Say rayng goon Station? “ he called out to the teenagers. They were riled by his beckoning them thus.
“This is Woodleigh, “replied Tony.
“Where is Say rayng goon?”
“Serangoon. Look over there on the map,” said Tony pointing to the free-standing information board next to the columns.
“Why be so helpful? He was rude to us”, whispered David to Tony and elbowed him on his arm.
After inspecting the names on the board, the stranger came and sat next to them. His breath reeked of whisky- both the teenagers had no difficulty in identifying the smell, they had consumed alcohol before, although they were under the legal age to drink.
“Next stay shun , next stay shun”, the stranger muttered to them. After sitting for a couple of minutes, he lay down on the bench. He let the briefcase that he was holding under his armpit fall on the floor with a thud.
The bench was not long enough for the three of them, especially when one was lying down. The teenagers winked, smiled at each other and moved to the next bench. Within the next few minutes, a near-empty train arrived at the station.
“ Hey uncle, the train’s here,” hollered Tony, but the stranger made no effort to get up.
“Hey uncle, “ Tony went over and patted on the sleeper’s shoulders, but he was oblivious to the shaking.
“He’s stone drunk. He may be waiting for the train in the other direction. Let’s go,” said David.
“This may be the last train tonight. They’ll lock up the station after that,” said Tony, shaking the stranger hard on the shoulders.
“We can’t look after him. When he gets up, he can walk all the way to Serangoon. Or the taxis may start again after midnight”, said David, “I am leaving. You can stay here and nurse him.”
David entered the train carriage, but when the chimes sounded for closing the train door, Tony was still standing beside the stranger at the platform. Reluctantly, David jumped out of the train before the doors closed.
“ That was stupid of you, “ David yelled at Tony, “You made us miss the train. You and your do-good actions!” He punched the advertisement board on the free-standing board of the platform a few times until it rattled.
“It was stupid of you to get out of the train,” said Tony. “You could have gone home.”
“Well, now I just pray that the probation officer will not choose this night to call. My dad is going to holler at me- that’s for sure. But I will make this guy pay.”
David grabbed the stranger’s fallen briefcase from the floor and started walking out towards the exit gates without looking back.
“What are you doing? There are cameras all over the platform,” said Tony looking upwards in all directions to search for them.
“So what ? Did cameras ever stop us from shoplifting at the department stores? The station staff are probably all snoozing at this time of the night. Come let’s go”, said David.
“They can identify your concession fare card if you pass the gate,” said Tony desperately. He might have been involved in petty misdemeanors, but he did not want to get mixed up in robbery of this kind.
“So, Noorlizah or whatever the name, came and went from the station, not David Lim. Don’t be a sissy.”
Once outside the station, David held on to the briefcase tightly. It was not heavy but the rattling sounds as he ran out indicated that there were many small things inside the briefcase .He could sense that Tony, who was following him a few steps behind, was peeved about the whole episode. All David’s attempts at polite conversation were rebuffed.
When they were sufficiently far away from the station entrance and there were no other pedestrians in sight along the road, David stopped and ventured to unzip the briefcase. It was evident that there was a laptop computer inside it and a few bric-bracs that he could not identify in the dim street light.
“ You shouldn’t have stolen the briefcase,” said Tony. He regretted ever suggesting to David to ride the train; they should have waited for the taxis.
“I see nothing wrong. He made me miss my train. This is my way of taking revenge,” said David.
“Missing the train was your fault, not his.”
“ Anyway, it’s done now. If you like, we can share whatever is inside,” said David trying to make up for his rash actions.
“No, you keep whatever you find,” said Tony. He did not feel comfortable at all and had a foreboding that the camera footage at the station would identify them as the robbers. Although he was not the one who stole the briefcase, he was an accomplice.
Fortunately by this time, taxis had reappeared on the streets and both managed to reach home about an hour after midnight. They lived in adjacent apartment blocks in the same neighbourhood at Toa Payoh. That is how their friendship had developed – by hanging out in groups in the evenings along the void decks of the adjoining blocks.
David’s parents were all fast asleep when he entered the house with the spare key, which meant that the probation officer had not checked up on him. When Tony arrived home, his mother was waiting up and started lamenting on why her only son had mixed up with bad company , indulging in smoking, drinking and keeping late nights.
David woke up late on Monday morning with a splitting headache. He had imbibed two cans of beers on the previous night, although he knew that he was easily susceptible to hangovers..Still in his pajamas, he went over to the first-aid cabinet and swallowed two panadol tablets with a glass of ice water. His parents had already left for work. David’s elder siblings had all set up successful careers, started their own families and moved out of the house, leaving him as the only one living with his parents. He could not totally put the blame on his father for his despotic behavior towards him. David had been a bright student until he started mixing with the teenage members of a street gang. He became rebellious at home and in school, resulting in expulsion and cessation of his studies. As of now, he had neither the wish nor the inclination to conform to the norms of society, which was a great source of anxiety for his parents.
After gulping down a few spoonfuls of cold porridge of oats that his mother had prepared for him, he returned to his air-conditioned bedroom to inspect the contents of the stolen briefcase. For a moment, his bravado deserted him. Had the stranger reported the loss of the briefcase to the station master? They would have checked the camera footage and noticed two boys making off with the briefcase. He doubted whether the footage would be sharp enough to identify their faces. In the “Crimewatch” series on television, he had noticed that whenever camera footage of suspects at ATM machines appeared, they lacked clarity. After dismissing these baleful thoughts from his mind, he brought out the contents of the briefcase.
The bounty consisted of a Fujitsu laptop computer with a charger and mouse, a Nokia hand phone with charger, two large neatly folded beige-coloured cotton cloths and two packs of playing cards. The first cloth had the inked markings of a central circle with nine rings round it and the second one had markings of triangles, rectangles and circles drawn randomly. He could recognize the face cards on one pack of playing cards because he had tried his hand at poker sessions occasionally ; the other pack bore the title of “Tarot” with the face cards that appeared unintelligible to him. Delving deeper into the recesses of the briefcase, he brought out many pieces of shiny white cowrie shells. From a small side pocket on the side, he retrieved a thin stack of black name cards. On each black card was inscribed in golden letters
Magician , Savant , Fortune Teller
The card bore no address, but only a telephone number. So the stranger was a foreigner; no wonder he was attired in a queer outfit. David could do with a new laptop; he would sell the one that he had for the past three years and keep this one. If Tony so wanted it, he would give the Nokia hand phone to him.
To find out the telephone number of the stranger’s phone. David dialed his own hand phone with it. With the ring tone, the message “number withheld” appeared.
Tony was still fast asleep when his hand phone rang. The display on the phone read “number withheld”. It was probably the money lender Ah Long who required him to harass the Teo family about the loan that they had not repaid . The last time Tony had been running errands and harassing borrowers for that loan shark, he was nabbed and let out with a severe warning at the neighbourhood police post. Tony decided it to be wise to ignore the phone call.
The phone rang again. Tony had half a mind not to answer, but when he looked at the identity of the caller on the display, it was David.
“Did you receive a call just now?” asked David
“Yes, from an anonymous caller”
“It was from Mr. Viswas”, David said. He hoped he pronounced the name correctly.
“Who? I don’t think I know such a person. How do you spell his name?”
“V I S W A S – he is the drunk foreign guy we met at the station,” said David, “I was using his handphone to call you. It’s a new Nokia model. Do you want it?”
“ No. I don’t receive stolen property. You keep it,” said Tony.
“This guy is from Nepal. He is a fortune teller, magician blah blah. He has also left me a new laptop computer. Why don’t you come over and we can go through some of his things in the briefcase?”
“No, I’m not interested in searching his briefcase.” Tony switched off his handphone.
Obviously Tony was still cross with him. David decided to explore the workings of the new laptop. On switching it on, the display asked for his identification and the password. He was caught off guard by these basic computer security requirements. He decided to try his luck and under identity, he entered “viswas”. The laptop blanked off for about thirty seconds and then delighted him by lighting up again with all the desktop icons in view , without the need for a password.
If it were that easy , he wanted to check Viswas’ e-mail account; there could be some valuable useful information. But try as he might with different identities and passwords, he was unable to gain access to viswas’ e-mail account.
David’s first visit was to the “My documents” icon. The first few articles varied from financial and tax statements to palm reading, tea- leaves reading, face reading, numerology, Chinese feng shui and astrology . He deleted most of the files because they did not interest him. The next few articles on card magic, coin magic and mind-reading were more suited to his taste. He took a cursory look at some of the articles before deciding that he would return to scrutinizing them at his leisure. This could be the start of something new- especially mind-reading which he could use to con a few gullible persons.
He opened the files in the “My music” icon. They were all strange chanting, which sounded like a cacophony of sounds to him.
He diverted his attention to the “My photos” icon. There were images of mountain ranges, rivers and animals with dates imprinted on them, probably indicating that Viswas was adroit with his camera. The next lot of images were of various women in states of undress or half-clad in clothes. The dusky skinned beauties were probably Nepalese, he surmised. So Viswas also had a dark naughty side to his nature. David smiled , now he had the “hook” to lure Tony to invite him over.
Finally, he decided to check his webmail for any messages. There were a couple of bogus mails that he had won a lottery and that his handphone was eligible for a gift. He deleted both messages as he always did, wondering how people could fall for such a simple ruse. Just as he was about to close the webmail, a message appeared with the title “ Warning.” He clicked on the mail and it read:
“I know what you did”
He did not understand what the message meant and so he searched for the name of the sender. It was from viswas. His heart missed a beat and he felt his palm sweating. Suddenly, he laughed- it was Tony trying to frighten the daylights out of him. He picked up his handphone and called Tony.
“That was very funny indeed. Sending e-mails to me from viswas. You gave me a fright, “ said David
“Not me. I haven’t gone anywhere near my computer today,” said Tony
“Then who sent it? Let me check the address. It says “viswas@ oblivion.com”.
“Ha ha; don’t you see it? This guy sent an e-mail to his laptop hoping to frighten you. He’s quite a clever guy,” Tony said.
“ Yes, that’s correct. Why didn’t I think of that? Aren’t you also cleverer than Viswas?” said David. He was pandering to Tony’s ego.
“It didn’t take me long to figure it out. Did it?”
“No. As I said, finders keepers,” said David.
“You stole the briefcase, you didn’t find it”
“You mean both of us stole it. Of course, no, I am only joking. Why don’t you just drop by and see the photographs that this guy took…… including girls in suggestive poses,” laughed David.
“You mean porn?”
“Not porn exactly, but you’ll love them,” David said, “you should also see the other weird things viswas had in the briefcase.”
It was past three o’clock when Tony arrived at David’s house. He joined David who was in the sitting room ensconced in the arm-chair, in watching a Michael Jackson video on MTV .
They retired to David’s room to inspect the contents of the briefcase. Tony opined that the cowrie shells, the drawings on the cloth and the Tarot cards were used by fortune tellers. He had read about such practices on a website. When he was otherwise unoccupied, Tony spent time surfing the internet incessantly.
“Now let us get to the exciting part……. girls,” said David as they turned their attention to the laptop screen. The first thing David did was to check his webmail, more out of habit than anything else- there was yet another new message from Viswas, which again read:
“I know what you did”
David laughed and said ,” Our friend doesn’t give up, does he? Too bad , Mr. Viswas, sir.”
Tony scanned the mail closely, “Wait a minute. This mail is to your address, not to Viswas’ own. How does he know your address? Did you e-mail him?”
David was filled with trepidation, “No. How does he know my address? That means he knows us. How’s that possible?”
“ He only saw us once, we have never seen him before,” Tony said, “Isn’t he a magician also? May be he knows black magic. Switch off the computer. Let us return the briefcase and all before he reports on us .”
“ We’ll return it at the Station. We’ll say we found it ,” said David.
“No. Our photos may be on the station’s cameras and it will be difficult to explain. Especially when you are on probation. It’ll be bad for me also although I did not steal the briefcase. I have a better idea. We’ll return the briefcase to the “Lost and Found “ section of the Train Company, They might not ask any questions, “said Tony. He felt proud at taking control of the situation and suggesting workable ideas.
“How do we inform this Viswas that we’re returning his things? He is the one who is harassing us,” asked David.
“Just before we turn in the laptop, we will send him an e-mail from it, apologising for the mistake and asking him to check at the “Lost and Found “section” , said Tony.
“What, if he has informed the Police? The moment that we return the briefcase, they may detain us,” said David.
“Maybe. But we have to return the briefcase to Mr. Viswas or whatever his name is. It is too dangerous to keep it. He knows who you are. It is scary”, said Tony. He was getting impatient. He had to ensure that David did not get caught because he might also be implicated as an accomplice in the robbery.
At the “Lost and Found “section at the third storey of the Headquarters of the Train Company at Buona Vista, there was a lady in a smart uniform at the counter in front of a door which led to a room where the lost articles were kept for safekeeping. She was attending to a couple who were gesticulating wildly, probably about an unhappy situation. While he was waiting to be served, David had a premonition that Mr. Viswas might suddenly appear at the counter and accuse them of stealing his briefcase. He tried hard to block out such thoughts from his mind.
After an agonizing fifteen minute wait, it was their turn.
David told the lady, “We found this briefcase on the staircase at Woodleigh station and are returning it here.”
“You should have informed station master there”, said the lady.
“Yes, we didn’t think of that. Can we return it here?” asked Tony.
“Yes,” she said, accepted the briefcase and handed them a form, using a pencil to mark a few sections , ”Just for the record, please fill in – your names, contacts, where and when the briefcase found . Just one name will do. You can use that table over there. “
The two teenagers looked at each other in bewilderment. They had not bargained for this turn of events. To complete the form was to provide incriminating evidence unless they were prepared to lie. They walked to the nearby table.
“We will pretend to fill in the form and take our own time. When she goes into the room , we will leave without handing in the form,” whispered Tony.
They had to wait for a few more agonizing minutes before a group of persons approached the counter. The lady went into the room to retrieve something.
The teenagers took that opportunity to slink away with the uncompleted form. They ran into the stairwell and walked down the staircase instead of using the lifts.
“Phew , that was close,” said Tony.
“Damn it. In our excitement, we forgot to e-mail Mr. Viswas from his laptop,” said David. He kept on looking behind whether any one was following them. He was apprehensive that the lady might have given the alarm by now.
“Never mind, we’ll go to the nearby internet café and send him an e-mail straight away . You know his e-mail address, don’t you?”
As they reached the stairwell of the first storey, Tony’s mobile phone gave a beep for a message. The message read :
“ I know what you did”
Tony stopped and showed the message to David, “He’s now sending SMS to me. Where did he get my number?”
“I used his phone to call you this morning… remember the anonymous call. His hand phone has your number and mine also in memory. Not to worry…that message may mean that Viswas has just collected his briefcase,” said David and smiled.
“Can’t be . We just left two minutes ago. We didn’t see him there. Also if he collected the briefcase, why is he still harassing us?” said Tony.
“He might have been in the office room with them. He may be just testing us. Can you reply to him? ” asked David.
Tony rushed out of the stairwell in anger, “ No sender details to reply to. He knows my phone number because of you and I did not even steal .”
“Sorry, Tony. Let us rush to the internet café and get the whole thing over with,” said David.
It was then that both of them spotted an announcement typewritten in large font on the notice board at the exit of the building. It read :
“ A middle-aged man, probably of South Asian descent was discovered dead at the platform of Woodleigh Station around midnight on Sunday 26th June. He was wearing a white long sleeved shirt with a blue necktie, black pants and white sports shoes at the time of his death. The deceased was slightly bald and sported a grey moustache. There were no identification documents on him. Anyone who knows his identity is requested to contact the Police at 999 immediately”
David’s face turned deathly pale and Tony began to tremble. It was now the turn of David’s mobile phone to emit a beep . In his heart, David already knew what the message would be-
Mr. Viswas had only just commenced stalking the two hapless teenagers.
[All characters in the story are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]
Filed under: Short Story | Tags: Chewing gum ban, English short stories from Asia, fiction around historical events, Kurlywee, Singapore fiction, Singapore short stories
“It is better for all if we discontinue the tuition,” Mei Ling’s father, Kenneth Teo said, “Just take your pay and leave. Don’t ever come back or show your face here.”
All because he, Lam Kok Peng had asked his student Mei Ling when her menstrual periods were due. His statement had been taken out of context. Ovulation and reproduction were normal subjects in biology and he had asked his student that innocuous question only to reinforce a point. Did any of his other students run to their parents to complain when he asked them, during the lesson on lungs and respiration, whether they had tried smoking? Was it not his duty, as a tuition teacher to impart knowledge?
“You are getting too familiar,” Mei Ling’s mother added.
Normally, Kok Peng would have used the stairs to walk down six storeys from the tuition girl’s apartment. Although he was corpulent, the regular morning jogs and visits to the gymnasium had ensured that he had enough stamina to walk down. At the deserted lift lobby, he pressed the call-button and waited impatiently. He could not help casting an occasional glance at the door of Mei Ling’s apartment. Was anyone watching to make sure that he had left? He just wanted to get away as quickly as possible.
He was relieved to enter an empty lift. He felt the lift descend and for a moment, he hoped that the door would open to a place far removed from this hostile world. Would Kenneth report the incident to the police? He had visions of the police leading him away in handcuffs. No, he consoled himself; these only occur in the soap operas on television. Not so comforting was the fact that the news of his ignominious dismissal was sure to get around and he would probably lose giving tuition to five of his girl students. That will leave him with the five boy students. It was only April, which would mean that he would be without that income for the next eight months of the year. Biology was not a sought-after subject for tuition, unlike English and Mathematics. He had opted for early retirement as a science teacher and depended on the tuition fees to supplement his income. Without the tuition income he would have to depend more on his wife’s wealth, not a comforting thought
He darted for the car when the lift door opened. He checked his reflection in the rear-view mirror, for any sign of anxiety in his face. He adjusted his shirt collar and tugged at the long sleeves. He had no wish to turn up for the next tuition appointment, which was in two hours time at four in the evening. He would think of some excuse. He drove straight to his only place of salvation, Harrys Pub at Boat Quay.
He parked his car in a basement car park. He felt the humidity engulf him as he took the short walk from the air-conditioned car to the pub. It was so heavenly to be in the cool atmosphere of the deserted pub. Seating himself comfortably on the heavily padded sponge cushion of the stool near the bar counter, he ordered a mug of cold draught beer.
“Rather early, Mr. Lam, a man of leisure. How I envy you?” Lingam said, while filling the mug to its brim.
You should not envy me, but rather pity me, thought Kok Peng, taking a large gulp of the golden liquid through the whitish froth. The beer felt good to his parched throat and deflated ego.. He avoided the salted peanuts that had been placed before him in a bowl. Retired life had lowered his high blood pressure and he had to be careful about his diet.
His eyes roamed around the heavily paneled wall, on which hung replicas of crests of various clubs. He searched his pocket for the three crisp fifty-dollar notes that Kenneth Teo had given him. On hindsight, it was stupid of him to have accepted the money so meekly. He should have returned them as a protest and reminded them that their daughter Mei Ling had only become an A-student because of his tuition. In his younger days, he would have stood up for his rights and got his way. He remembered an incident, during his courtship of his wife-to-be, Lee Eng while both were residents at the Dunearn Hostels at the university campus at Bukit Timah, when he stood up to his father-in-law, who was an important man in those days. She had been visibly impressed. After marriage, he had gradually taken flight at the slightest hint of any confrontation. Is that what marriage did to men, he wondered?
In between serving other customers, Lingam kept topping up his mug. Kok Peng basked in the idyllic setting of that familiar haunt. It would only be a matter of time before his wife Lee Eng heard about the cause of his dismissal. Could their marriage survive any more knocks? He truly regretted that tempestuous affair with the dance teacher about two years ago. He had learned an invaluable lesson and he would keep clear of women. He still loved Lee Eng for herself and not for her wealth. Still, money came in handy and she had plenty of it given to her by her grandmother. If she divorced him, as she had threatened to, he could be in dire straits.
In between large gulps of the life-giving liquid, he turned the pages of a newspaper that he had picked up.
Under the obituary column, he espied the familiar face of Madam Lim Sulan, Lee Eng’s grandmother. It was a first anniversary tribute to the memory of the late benefactor who had passed away in 1991 from the Management Committee of Maha Bodhi Middle School. In his present state of mind, he completely forgot about that evening’s anniversary chantings at the Bright Hill Buddhist temple for grandma . Although he professed no religion , he was quite content to observe the Buddhists rituals of his wife’s family.
“Lingam, how do you get rid of the smell of liquor from my breath? I have to go to the temple in the evening.”
“In that case, you should have drunk gin and tonic instead of beer. I will get you some spicy food to tone down the smell. Also, why don’t you apply some medicinal balm on your forehead? It hides the smell.” Lingam disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a white bowl filled with steaming chicken curry with a loaf of French bread ,a large glass of crystal clear ice water and a bottle of Tiger Balm.
“What would I do without you?” Kok Peng dipped large chunks of bread into the bowl.
The quiet of the pub was disturbed by an incessant beeping on his newly-purchased Motorola pager , strapped to his belt. He felt sheepish when some patrons turned their eyes towards him. Quickly he turned the pager to the silent mode and looked at the bright display of the telephone number . It was not a familiar number . There was no convenient telephone nearby for him to call the number.
At six thirty, his car wound up the serpentine road to the house in the exclusive residential district at Jalan Kebaya. He felt so good to be greeted with the lush foliage, which gleamed in the twilight, on both sides of the road. at the end of which stood their large bungalow. Was he going to be denied of all these luxurious surroundings if Lee Eng left him?
As the car neared the front gate, he sounded its horn. Flora, the Filipino maid appeared and opened the gates to let him drive into the spacious porch.
“Where have you been, sir? The tuition girl called twice. She said that you did not turn up. I gave her your pager number. Madam has been worried about you.”
He felt cross that Flora had given away his pager number without his permission, but managed to keep cool.
“Where is madam?” asked Kok Peng.
“Dressing up to go for the temple. She has been very upset today,” continued Flora.
“Because I am late?”
“No, madam says that people still whisper that grandmother took an overdose and killed herself because of madam.”
The statement stung him. “Flora, I don’t ever want you to say such terrible things in the house. It has been a year and people can’t people hold their tongue.”
“Sorry, sir. I meant no harm.” Flora disappeared into the spacious garden to tend to the flowers.
What audacity? What right had a maid to talk about such things? This is what maids do when they go out on their Sunday outings, gossip about their employers. He could not understand how Lee Eng, who was so picky about choosing friends, could trust this little petite woman from Manila. He had no cause to complain about Flora’s cleanliness. He could not stand her trying to rearrange his wardrobe, papers on his desk and worst of all his shoes. They all start very obediently during their first term. The problems start during the second term and Flora had been employed with them for two terms. He must remember to broach with his wife on the subject of renewing her work permit, which was due to expire in a few month’s time. He would prefer a new maid, a more obedient one
When Kok Peng entered the house, he saw his wife all dressed up as if for a party, ensconced in the armchair. Even though slightly plump, Lee Eng in her late forties still cut a pretty sight. He had been especially taken by her dimpled smile and in the earlier days of the marriage, he got up to many antics just to make her smile. Seeing her sitting there deeply absorbed in the woman’s magazine, he wanted to complement her.
However, his thoughts were cut short, when she looked at him and snapped, “Where have you been? I have been worried sick about you. Could you not phone up?”
“Well…,” he lied, “I went to buy some text books.”
“Kok Peng, I can see through you when you lie,” countered Lee Eng ,” You think I am stupid enough to believe that the smell of the balm means that you have a headache. You have been drinking.”
“I also dropped in at the pub,” he admitted meekly.
“What will the temple monks think when they smell whiskey? Unless, of course, you do not want to attend the chanting….. especially, after all the things that grandma has done for you.”
He noted the sardonic tone in her voice. They had a tacit agreement never to discuss how grandma had patched up their marriage, only by threatening to exclude Lee Eng from her will and leaving everything to her sister Hwee Eng ,if she divorced Kok Peng. This was Lee Eng’s way of needling him.
“How can you say such a thing? Grandma has done a lot for me and I will not forget her,”
When Lee Eng faced him, he noticed that she had been crying. It reminded her of the time she broke down and cried when the gynecologist told the couple that she could not bear children. He felt a sudden tenderness towards her when he remembered what Flora had just said.
“I am sorry,” he said, “I will go and change.”
“There is no need for it. I will have to give some excuse to the monks and our relatives on why you are not there. And you better have an explanation why you did not turn up for the tuition at Mrs. Chong’s place. She called up.” Lee Eng did not wait for his reply but just got up and left the house.
He was taken aback by her abrupt behaviour. Did she hate him that much? He heard the sound of the gate open and the car leaving. There was a lurking suspicion in his mind that she had come to know about the incident at Mei Ling’s house.
The next week was a disaster for his tuition job. He lost three of his girl students. All the parents were polite; they did not mention anything except that their daughters did not need tuition any more. What hypocrisy, he thought. The word had got around. He wondered how long it would be before his wife got wind of it.
He did not have to wait long. On Sunday morning, he set out is usual golf game with his four buddies. It rained so heavily because the monsoon season had started. The game was cancelled and when he returned, he was surprised to see Lee Eng in the house. Normally, she would have been at the Ladies’ Luncheon at the Y’s club. She had started attending these regular luncheons after an absence of a year. How could he forget that one year, when she made his life miserable on each Sunday afternoon? She used to gripe that his affair with that “hussy” as she liked to call the dance teacher had spoiled her chances of becoming the President of Y’s club.
“They are now slandering me because of your shameful behaviour, they are asking how I can look after a club, when I cannot even look after my husband.”
However, she was not above slandering the candidates who would have stood against her. How often had he overheard his wife and her coterie planning their strategies over tea and biscuits at the canopy in the garden in the evenings? There was a lot of bitchiness in the ladies’ conversations.
She was looking very stern.”I want to ask you something and I want the truth.”
“What is it?”
“Have you been losing many of your girl students?”
“Yes,” he replied, “and before you jump to any conclusions, I am losing girl students because one of my students is spreading lies about me.”
“That you have been making suggestive remarks to her. How can you stoop so low?”
“There, you are accusing me before you hear me out. That is what Kenneth Teo, her father did.”
“Flora says that she heard that you just took the money and left. If you were so innocent, you would have stood your ground,” countered Mei Ling.
“He did not give me a chance. And why are you bringing maids into this affair.” He was very angry that Flora was the rumour monger.
“Because even maids are talking about it at their Sunday outings. Have you no shame? Are you a pedophile?”
“I am innocent. I made a casual remark on the girl’s monthly period when I was teaching ovulation and reproduction. Is there something wrong with that?” he asked.
“Then you have to convince her father, not me.”
“I will do just that.” He put on a brave front. Now he regretted that he had just taken the money and left. This did not leave him any room for maneuvering. Why was he so hasty?
“Kok Peng, grandma has been gone for a year now. We had our troubles and grandma was the one who did not want another tragedy in the house. That is why I agreed to keep the marriage together. I have kept my part of the bargain, but you have not. Why should we keep the marriage together?” enquired Mei Ling.
So this is what it has come to, Kok Peng concluded. He cupped his ears with both hands.
“We have gone through some bad times, we will get over it”
“The last two years have been especially bad. My first mistake was not to leave you alone when you retired. I enrolled both of us in the ballroom dancing class at Y’s Club and you start an affair with the teacher”, she started.
“That was more than a year ago. I have regretted it,”
“Let me finish….. my next mistake was to listen to grandma’s pleas not to leave you. Would you ever know what I went through at the Club?”
“You lost your chance to be President, I am sorry”
“I had to withdraw, I could not face anyone in the club, especially because I was the one who arranged the ballroom dancing classes,” she continued.
“You can still stand for the elections in this year”
She dismissed the statement contemptuously. “Fat chance.”
“Lee Eng, what happened to our marriage? We were happy when we were a simple middle-class family in the housing board flat at Bishan,” he said.
“I have watched you change from a confident person to one who is now indifferent to anything but his own selfish needs. That is what happened.”
“It was the money. We should have refused the money that grandma gave us from the airline insurance company. I told you that it was blood money from the death of your parents at the air crash,” he could not help saying this.
She cast a contemptuous glance, “Yet you had no qualms about enjoying the things that grandma’s money brought about.”
” The money did no good to grandma also although she gave some to charity. She spent most of it to ward off depression,” he continued.
“Do not blame the money. Blame yourself for not thinking of others. I see no point in putting up this facade of a happy marriage.”
“Does not twenty five years of marriage mean anything to you? I am surprised.”
“You should have thought about that when you started your gallivanting. You could not even stand up to your tuition student’s father. What are you , a man or a mouse?” Lee Eng taunted him.
“You may want to leave me and may also do that. But I will clear my name… just wait and see,” he stormed out thus ending the conversation.
Sleep did not come that easily at night. Between tossing and turning, he devised plans on how he should vindicate himself. The best way was to meet up with Kenneth to explain that it was all a mistake ,which had been blown out of all proportions. He would invite Kenneth for a sumptuous lunch at the Polo Club and settle the whole matter. He could not wait for morning to arrive. With a heart full of excitement, he phoned up to Kenneth Teo’s house very early in the morning. Kenneth had already left and he was given the office number which he could call after 9 am. At exactly 9 am , he called the office and invited Kenneth to discuss the matter over lunch. Kenneth dismissed the whole idea saying that there was nothing to talk about. He had no wish to have any further contact with Lam Kok Peng, who tried desperately to continue the conversation but to no avail.
He waited for Lee Eng to leave for a charity bazaar before calling Kenneth’s office again. The secretary hung up the phone when Kok Peng announced his name. He spent the best part of the morning trying to talk to his adversary, but with no success. It was bad enough not to get to talk to him, but what irritated him even more was Flora trying to eavesdrop on bits of conversation. Why could she not have stayed in Manila to look after her daughter?
At lunchtime, he retired to his place of solace,Harrys Pub. Amidst the large lunch crowd, Lingam spotted him and waved to him. He took up a seat by the window and patiently waited his turn to be served. Patience was a virtue that he had picked up. Amidst the animated conversations of the patrons, he noticed so many happy faces. How lucky were they all not to be confronted with troubles, or so it seemed.
Lingam came up to him with a large mug of draught beer and shouted above the din, “How did it go at the temple the other day?
“I did not go for the memorial function. I really feel bad because grandma was good to me,” Timothy confessed.
“Yes, you told me. Old people can be very nice”
Such an answer amidst the large swigs he took, brought back pleasant memories of grandma. Of all of Lee Eng’s relatives, she was the only one who was kind to him, and brought up in the old tradition that a man should be the head of the household. How often had she chided him for not standing up to Lee Eng?
“My wife is going to leave me,” he confided in Lingam.
Lingam seemed taken aback by the confession. “You know, Mr. Lam. It is worth trying to make up. My wife and I also have our own troubles, but we always make up in the end. There are always kind and nosy relatives who make it their aim in life to help to heal marriages.”
“If grandma were around, it would not have happened,” sighed Kok Peng.
” I believe in heaven and if your grandma were such a nice person, she would be there and she would surely help you. I have to serve others now. Cheer up. Things cannot be that bad,” said Lingam as he flitted away to the next table.
Grandma in heaven, how nice a complement. Then suddenly, he remembered. Yes, grandma in heaven is going to help me. Grandma, that benefactor of Maha Bodhi Middle School, in which Mei Ling was a student was going to help him.
Kok Peng rushed home and calmly planned his strategy. When he was sure that he had covered all angles, he made a telephone call to the Principal of the school. Madam Chen Geok Ling was glad to hear from the grandson of the late Madam Lim Sulan.
Kok Peng started the conversation in a suave and confident manner
“Both my wife Lee Eng and I were deeply touched that you remembered the late Madam Lee Sulan’s anniversary and we thank you for putting up the condolences in the obituary column”
“The school is greatly indebted to your grandmother and the Management Committee thought it only fitting to remember her, ” replied the Principal.
“How is everything going on in the school?”
“There are many changes taking place and we are restructuring the syllabus. The Ministry has just proposed to drop the teaching of religious knowledge and we are gathering feedback. We hope Mrs Lam will join us at the next Management Committee meeting”, said Madam Chen.
“I will remind her. I am calling you because I need some help to arrange a meeting with the parents of one of your students”
“Oh I would be glad to arrange such a meeting. What is the purpose?” asked the Principal.
“She is one of my tuition students and I would like to clear a misunderstanding that I had with the parents,” he said.
He felt confident at her demeanour. He narrated all the unfortunate incidents that he had experienced, explaining all the minute details. He was surprised that he did not feel inhibited talking to her on the phone. He had met the personable middle-aged lady on one or two occasions when he had driven grandma to the school’s speech days. On those occasions, he had only exchanged perfunctory remarks with her.
“Mr. Lam. I see your predicament. I will help in any way I can, but Mei Ling’s father may not want to come for a meeting,” Madam Chen said after a few minutes of silence.
“He will if you tell him that you will also be around and that the matter will be in strict confidence,”
“He may not want to discuss it in front of the Principal and the student, I think,” she ventured.
“But the girl has to be around so that I can ask her what she thought I actually said,” he said,” but it will not be a cross examination.”
“Is your wife agreeable to the meeting?” asked the Principal.
Kok Peng felt irritated at the question because it implied that his wife called the shots.
“She knows all about it and she wants to clear up the misunderstanding.” He blurted out the last sentence unconsciously and then he was pleased that he did it. He was now making decisions for himself.
“Let me see what I can do. We owe a lot to your grandma. Do you know that she was a teacher here many years ago,”said Madam Chen
“Yes, she told me all about it.” That was a lie, it was the first time he was hearing it, but there was no harm in a bit of pretense now that things were going favourably.
A couple of days later, Madam Chen phoned and said that she had managed to persuade Mr. Kenneth Teo and Mei Ling to have a meeting with him and his wife Lee Eng. The Principal would also be present.
The lady was very efficient, he had to concede. But before he had time to thank her, she added’ “There is a condition, however. Mr. Kenneth Teo gave me their side of the story and they really feel aggrieved. He asked me to be the impartial judge. If I believed my student Mei Ling’s version, then he said that he would report the matter to the Police.”
She deliberated on the word “police”. It struck him off balance. He wanted to have nothing with the police, but he had to say something quickly, but his brain would not just work.
“Mr. Lam, are you agreeable. Of course, I have to be neutral,” Madam Chen said.
So she was doubting him. He was not going to stand for that.
“Of course, do you expect me to assume otherwise?”
“I am sorry,” she apologised, ” I did not mean it in that sense.”
He wanted to rub it in. “Then what did you mean? He can report to the police for all I care.” Suddenly he felt brave. He was innocent. The telephone conversation came to an end.
After the telephone conversation , he took some time to cogitate. Did he really mean nothing when he asked Mel Ling intimate questions. Had he asked exactly similar questions to his other girl students? Did that question have to do anything with the fact that she was well-developed for her 16 years of age and that she was ebullient. He would never know and he decided to leave these unsettling thoughts from his mind.
There was conversation at the dinner table on that night. Usually both husband and wife ate in silence.
Kok Peng pushed the raw slices of fish into the steaming hot rice porridge in the pink red bowl and waited for the dish to cool.
“I am glad that I could get Madam Chen Geok Ling to arrange that meeting..
“That is only a first step,” Lee Eng replied, nibbling a piece of the pickled cucumbers,” Any way it is better to settle the issue once and for all.”
“I want you to be at the meeting,” Kok Peng said.
“Provided there is a meeting,” she said, “What good would it do to have me there?”
“Firstly, to give moral support and then I would like to prove that I am innocent in front of you”
“Getting all mushy, are we not?” said Lee Eng.
He felt hurt at the sardonic remark. That woman was bent on hurting him. She would never know that she meant quite a lot to him.
“You may have decided to break up the marriage. This is the last thing you can do for me,” he said.
Lee Eng did not reply. Both started on their food. Kok Peng had to admit that Flora was an excellent cook; that was the only good thing about her. He did not want to lose the good life he had and he did not want to lose his wife. By vindicating himself, he stood some chance of doing it.
When they were eating the lychees, Lee Eng said, “I concede this much to you, that you had the resources to arrange that meeting. But, if you had clarified when Kenneth Teo accused you, this would not have been necessary.”
“At that time, I was all confused. Now I have to go through this unnecessary ordeal”
“What ordeal? I thought you were completely innocent, “asked a surprised Lee Eng.
“Of course, I am. That is why I want you to be at the meeting. To be at your husband’s last stand,” he added in a deliberate tone to check her reaction.
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic, I will come with you.”
After the dinner, husband and wife retreated to their own bedrooms. Lee Eng had moved out of the master bedroom after the discovery of his adulterous affair, more than a year ago. Since then, she had started using her maiden surname – she called herself Mrs Lam-Ong Lee Eng. She had said that there was nothing left of the marriage. She had stubbornly refused to move back to the same bedroom even when grandma persuaded her. Now he felt that he may be thrown out of this bedroom also. In a settlement of a divorce, he might only be able to get a small settlement and he would have problems living on his exiguous pension and the pittance from tuitions. Anyway, for the moment, his only goal was to vindicate himself.
On the next day, the couple arrived early at the school. They were greeted in the general office by the vice-principal, Mrs. Amina Ibrahim.
“Hello Mrs. Lam Lee Eng,” she said, “This is indeed a surprise. It is so good for you to visit the school with your husband.”
“I am here to see Madam Chen”
“About some admission of students,” inquired Amina
Kok Peng was peeved and relieved. Peeved because Amina thought that they only came to ask for favors, relieved because nobody other than the Principal seemed to know about the purpose of their visit.
“No, it is about another matter , regarding the school,” replied Lee Eng.
“We were talking about you at the Y’s Club. Mrs. Bala’s term is running out at the end of the year. You should stand for election now,” Amina said.
Lee Eng just smiled and excused themselves to go into the Principal’s office.
Madam Chen got up from the chair and came over to shake hands with both of them. She then led them to the corner of the office which was furnished to receive visitors. Kok Peng surveyed the room, which had its walls painted in blue, making the room look smaller than it really was. The air-conditioning had been turned on high and he felt cold. Madam Chen was wearing a sweater and Lee Eng a 3-piece suit. They would not feel cold, but then he wondered whether it was his nervousness that made him feel the cold.
He did not pay much attention to the small talk that the ladies were carrying on with. He was more interested in the daunting task before him, he had to pay full attention.
The waiting was getting on his nerves. He wanted to get over with the episode as soon as possible.
The quiet of the room was broken by the ringing of the telephone. Madam Chen excused herself and went to pick up the receiver.
Do not let it be Kenneth Teo cancelling his appointment, prayed Kok Peng. He had come this far and he wanted to close this chapter. The Principal was speaking softly on the phone and with her back towards the couple. He strained his ears to overhear any snippets of the conversation , but without success.
When Madam Chen returned to the armchair, she was looking rather grave and this troubled Kok Peng.
“Mr. Lam, do you know a student named Tay Tahn Joo?” Madam Chen asked.
“Yes, I used to give her tuition last year , but not anymore,” replied Kok Peng.
“Is anything the matter?” Lee Eng cut in.
“Maybe nothing to it. But she also made some allegations,” continued Madam Chen.
“What type of allegations?”asked Lee Eng , getting up from the chair.
“As I said before, maybe nothing to it,” said the Principal evading their eyes, “She claimed that Mr. Lam here had also acted improperly towards her.”
“I am not giving tuition to her anymore,” said Kok Peng, “I don’t know what she is talking about?”
“She wanted to see me,” said Madam Chen, “But I will only see her after our meeting with Mei Ling and her parents.”
“Kok Peng,” said Belinda, “Can I have a private word with you?” He noticed that she had turned pale and was trembling slightly.
He had to put up a brave front and stand up for himself.
“I have nothing to hide from both of you. I categorically deny that I said anything improper to Tahn Joo , ” Kok Peng said.
“Mr. & Mrs. Lam, do you want some time to think over it. I can delay Mei Ling and her father for a while,” said Madam Chen trying to be helpful., “I can even cancel the meeting, if you wish so.”
“No, No, I want to go through with this,”Kok Peng said.
“Let us not be so hasty'” said Lee Eng, ” I think we should discuss this privately.”
“Lee Eng, leave it to me”
Lee Eng kept quiet. The tranquility of the scene had been broken and each of them sat quietly waiting for the father and daughter to arrive. Kok Peng reflected on what had just happened. Had he made the right decision? He did not recall any incident when he had mentioned anything improper to Tahn Joo. Or had he? Now nagging doubts began to surface in his mind. Had he got himself into deep water? He felt confused and his throat felt dry. How he wished that he was in Harrys Pub quaffing cold beer and talking with Lingam. But such a respite would only be temporary, it would be better to be done with this affair which was ruining his peace of mind. To calm his mind, he looked out of the window to the concrete viaducts and the passing trains.
When Mr. Kenneth Teo appeared with his wife and Mei Ling, they all avoided his eyes and talked only to Madam Chen.
“I believe that we are all acquainted with each other and I hope all of us know what we are here for,” thus started Madam Chen, “Mr. Lam thinks there has been a misunderstanding and he would like to explain.”
“There is nothing to explain. My daughter has explained everything,” counterered Kenneth ,” I came out of respect for you, Madam Chen.”
“That is very thoughtful of you,” said Lee Eng and Kok Peng sensed her dislike for his accusers.
“And I hope that you have explained that I may take this up to greater lengths, if this meeting proves that my daughter is telling the truth,” said Kenneth. The menacing tone and the underlying threat were evident.
They all sat down, the Teo’s on one settee, the Lam’s on the opposing settee and Madam Chen on an armchair between them.
Madam Chen started, “Mei Ling, this is not a trial but a meeting to find out what really happened. Your parents are very upset because they believe that the tuition teacher Mr. Lam made some improper remarks to you. If this were indeed so, they have every right to be angry. Mr. Lam thinks that his remarks were taken out of context and he had no improper intentions towards you. If this is the case, then this is a case of an unfortunate misunderstanding. “
“Mei Ling , please describe what happened?”continued Madam Chen.
Mei Ling looked at her parents, “Must I?”
Her mother nodded.
“About three weeks ago, during the biology tuition at my house in the afternoon, Mr Lam asked me when my menstrual periods were. I felt shy and did not answer. He then smiled , tapped my hand and said something like, why are you so shy?”, said Mei Ling.
Lee Eng interjected, “What did he exactly say?”
Madam Chen looked said, “Let her finish. Then you can ask the questions.”
Kok Peng suddenly realised that his wife was going to take over the proceedings if he did not act and that could be disastrous if she was thinking of leaving him. He had to take over.
“Then what happened?” asked Madam Chen.
“He changed the subject.”
“And the tuition continued?”
“What could she do? Leave the tuition. Both of us were out working,” said Kenneth.
“So you were all alone at that time in the house,” asked Madam Chen
“No, my younger brother and the maid were in the house. I did not leave the tuition because it would have been rude,” said Mei Ling.
“Did you report the incident to your parents immediately?”asked Madam Chen
“No, I only told them the next week just before the next tuition. “
“Why did you not do it immediately?”asked Madam Chen.
“Look, what is this?” demanded Kenneth,” all that matters is that she reported it to us. Does it matter when?”
“Mr. Kenneth, let your daughter finish explaining the situation. Then you can give your opinions, “said Madam Chen.
“Yes, dear'” said Mei Ling’s mother to her husband Kenneth, “let her finish”
“I was all confused and I wanted to think about it,” continued Mei Ling.
“Did you talk about it to anyone else before you spoke to your parents?” asked Madam Chen.
Mei Ling looked at the floor and hesitated, “No”
“And then you father stopped the tuition immediately, Did you talk about the incident to anybody else after you stopped the tuition?” asked Madam Chen.
“It was common knowledge by then”
“So you spoke to others”, continued Madam Chen.
“Yes, to my friends after that,” Mei Ling answered softly.
Kok Peng saw an opportunity to cut in, “Yes, everyone knows why my services were terminated”
“And for a good reason too,” said Kenneth.
Kok Peng’s first thought was to rebuke him, then he remembered that he had to remain calm.
“May I ask Mei Ling some questions?” asked Kok Peng
“I would like to start,” said Lee Eng.
“No. I want to do it,” said Kok Peng in a firm tone.
He asked, “Mei Ling, how long have I given you tuition in Biology?”
“For two years”
“Am I a good teacher?”
“How good a teacher am I?”
“What type of question is that?” interjected Kenneth.
“Good enough to get you an A for the biology assessment in March, correct?” asked Kok Peng, ignoring the comment.
“Yes, “said Mei Ling.
“What was I teaching you when I asked you that question about your menstrual periods?”
“Sex and reproduction”, said Mei Ling.
“No, it was about ovulation and menstrual periods, to be precise,” Kok Peng was growing confident by the minute.
” I think so”
“Have I ever touched you physically?”
“No. “said Me Ling.
“That is not correct. I have touched you before.”
“Can you explain that?” asked a troubled Madam Chen.
“Madam Chen, are there not rules about a man teacher touching a girl student?” asked Kenneth.
“Let me explain. Mei Ling, what are the radius and the ulna?” asked Kok Peng
“They are bones in my forearm”
“Very good. Did I touch your forearm to make you feel these two bones, when I taught you about bones?” asked Kok Peng.
“Did you feel upset over that?”
“No, I did not,” said Mei Ling
“Have I asked you very personal questions before?”, Kok Peng continued with renewed optimism.
“No.” answered Mei Ling, now looking threatened.
“Wrong again. I asked you whether you had tried smoking cigarettes when I was teaching you about the lungs. I asked you whether you had tried taking drugs when I taught you about the effect of chemical compounds in the body.”
“Yes, I guess you did,” answered Mei Ling.
Kok Peng looked triumphantly at the congregation, “You see, that is how I teach Biology by using our human body as an example. That is why I produce A students. ” Then looking plaintively at Madam Chen, “he said, “I really meant no harm to this girl. It was only my method of teaching.”
Kok Peng looked at each one in turn. His wife smiled at him and he felt encouraged. He had put up a good defence. What will happen now?
“What do you say now, Mei Ling?” asked Madam Chen.
Mei Ling looked at her parents, hesitated and then said, “It was still not right for him to ask me that question.”
“Yes,” added Kenneth, “teachers should know where to draw the line between right and wrong. What Mr. Lam did was wrong by any account.”
Kok Peng felt drained of energy. He had failed to convince them of his innocuous intentions. But they were not accepting the information. He looked at Lee Eng and she smiled at him as if to say, never mind, it will be all right.
The silence was broken by Lee Eng, who asked,” Mei Ling, does anyone know about this meeting?”
“No, why do you ask?” asked Mei Ling.
“Are you sure that you have told none of your friends?” continued Lee Eng.
“Of course, she has told no one. We have told no one. I do not like my daughter to get involved any more in this incident. It is over and done away with, “said Kenneth.
“I am absolutely sure I have told no one'” reiterated Mei Ling.
“Have you told a girl called Tahn Joo?” asked Lee Eng. Suddenly , Kok Peng gleaned a ray of hope. She was taking a shot in the dark, would it work?
Mei Ling hesitated again, looked at her parents and then to Lee Eng and said, “No”
“Strange why she wants to meet the Principal about a similar complaint just after this meeting,” said Lee Eng non-chalantly.
Kok Peng saw the colour draining off Mei Ling’s face.
“So there are other girls who have similar complaints. What more proof is needed?”said Kenneth with glee.
“I did not want to bring up the subject. But Mrs. Lam has talked about it. Tay Tahn Joo has a complaint, but that has nothing do with this incident.,” said Madam Chen.
“On the contrary, it has everything to do with this case,’ said Kenneth.
Kok Peng only half-heard the comment because he was watching Mei Ling who was feeling very comfortable. Then it struck on him why Tahn Joo was saying such things about him. Why had he missed it?
Lee Eng cut in, “Of course, Madam Chen will ask Tahn Joo how she found out about this meeting” and cast a glance at Mei Ling.
“It must be a sheer coincidence,” said Kenneth, “we have told no one. We are not accepting Mr. Lam’s explanation”
Kok Peng became agitated. “Mei Ling, are you sure you did not tell Tahn Joo about today’s meeting?”
“Look here. It has nothing to do with this case, that is what Madam Chen said”, said Kenneth.
“Yes, it has nothing to do with this case. But I want to ask this young lady whether she told Tahn Joo about this meeting. “said Madam Chen.
Mei Ling remained silent for some time. Then looking at the floor, she said, “Yes”
Kenneth stood up, “What ? I wanted to keep the whole thing out of public eyes.”
“She is my best friend, Father,” pleaded Mei Ling, “that is why I told her.”
Kenneth’ wife calmed Kenneth down. “Don’t get so excited, sit down”
Kok Peng pounced in for the kill, “Did you discuss the incident at your house with Tahn Joo before telling your parents?”
Mei Ling kept quiet. After a while, she said defiantly, “No, I did not”
“She has already told you that she did not discuss it with anyone before she talked to us,” said Kenneth.
“She also told us that she did not tell anyone about today’s meeting. Now she has changed her story,” replied Kok Peng.
Kok Peng watched Mei Ling squirming and he got a sudden sense of pleasure.
“My daughter is no liar,” said Kenneth getting all excited.
“Maybe not. But she bends the truth,” added Lee Eng.
They could see that Mei Ling was close to tears and looking at her mother helplessly.
Kenneth got up and asked his wife and daughter to do the same. “This has gone far enough. We are leaving. We do not believe Mr. Lam. He has insulted my daughter. We do not want to have anything to do with him.”
“I am sure that there are many questions that Madam Chen would want to ask Tahn Joo when she sees her just after the meeting”, Lee Eng butted in, stressing on the word “just after the meeting deliberately”
“That does not concern us. She has the same complaint. What kind of a teacher is Mr. Lam if all girl students are afraid of him'” said Kenneth, irritated at being held up from leaving.
“Correction, not all girl students, “said Kok Peng., “If you want to know why Tahn Joo fabricated the allegation, let me tell you”
Then he turned to Mei Ling. “Did your best friend tell you that last year, I caught her and some friends around midnight at Novena Station sticking chewing gum on door sensors of the trains. When I asked her why she was doing it, she said that it was their protest against the recent banning of chewing gum. I told her that she could be charged for vandalism. I told her that she had two choices – I will confiscate all her packets or I will tell her parents. She handed all the packets to me and left in anger. The next day she called up to stop my tuition; when I asked to speak to her parents, she said that they had agreed because there was no improvement in her grades. “
Mei Ling kept quiet.
“Did she tell you about this ?” repeated Kok Peng.
“Whether she told my daughter or not is not an issue here,” said Kenneth.
“I was merely asking whether her best friend told her of her about the incident,” countered Kok Peng.
“We are leaving. This is leading nowhere,” said Kenneth.
Madam Chen who had been quiet and watching the accusations and insinuations passing to and fro spoke up.
“May I say a few words before you all leave?”
Kenneth sat down, “Of course”
“We met here with an intention to come up with a conclusion. Mei Ling and her parents believe genuinely that Mr. Lam behaved improperly towards her. She is of an impressionable age and this is natural. Mr. Lam has demonstrated that his way of teaching biology, which has resulted in good marks for his students was correct and he meant no harm. I would like to inform him that his method may be correct in a class full of students but may not be appropriate when he tutors a teenage girl student. He is sorry that it happened.”
Kok Peng saw this as a way out, but his thoughts were rudely shaken by Lee Eng, who said, “Mr. Lam is not apologising for his way of teaching. What he is saying is that it all started as a result of a misunderstanding”
“Then I stand corrected,” said Madam Chen. Kok Peng looked blank because he thought that if his wife had not intervened, Kenneth may have come to see reason.
Madam Chen turned to Mei Ling, “Mei Ling, do you think that Mr. Lam behaved improperly towards you or is it a misunderstanding?”
Kenneth said, ” The girl has told you many times that Mr. Lam behaved indecently.”
“Let her answer, Mr. Teo,” said Madam Chen.
“Mei Ling, tell her what you told us and we can leave. I am going to take this up at other levels,” threatened Kenneth.
“I don’t know what to think. I am all confused,” blurted out Mei Ling.
“Don’t let them confuse you. Tell them what you told us,” said Kenneth.
“No, father. I am confused. I might have read more into Mr. Lam’s actions.”
“Are you changing your story now? After putting us through all this'” chided Kenneth.
“Don’t be hard on her. Let her speak on how she felt,” said Madam Chen
” Madam Chen, after hearing everything, I feel that the whole affair could have been a misunderstanding,” said Mei Ling and broke into tears.
“Don’t be swayed by what happened at this meeting. Tell the truth Mei Ling'” advised Kenneth.
“That is the truth, father. I am sorry to put all of you through this trouble,” sobbed Mei Ling. Her mother went over to her to comfort her.
Kenneth stood up again and said, “Madam Chen , this is how it has ended and I want to close any mention of the incident. But you did say that Mr. Lam should have been more careful in teaching teenage girl students. I will not take him back as a tutor.”
Kok Peng felt enraged, “I would not come back even if you doubled my salary. I have had enough.”
“Another thing, Madam Chen. I want to keep this meeting confidential. Is that possible? Can all those who attended not go and talk about it outside?” said Kenneth.
Kok Peng could not believe his ears, this man and his family had no compunctions to spread the word of his dismissal and he lost three students. Now when they were beaten, they wanted to hide the news. He was not going to agree.
Suddenly, Lee Eng spoke up; “Of course the meeting and what happened will not come out of Mr. Lam’s and my mouth”
Kok Peng wondered what his wife was up to. Would she not even offer him a chance to redeem his name?
Kenneth lost no time in shaking Madam Chen’s hand and trooping out with his wife and daughter without giving even a glance to the Lams. Kok Peng was in no mood to talk. He had won a pyrrhic victory. How would the world out there know that he was clear now?
“Thank you, Madam Chen,” Lee Eng said, “You handled the meeting very well” Then the couple took leave from the room.
As they came out, they saw Kenneth’s car driving along the driveway. Mei Ling was not with them, so he assumed she had gone back to class.
Mrs. Ibrahim was still in the general office, at the photocopying machine.
“How did the meeting go?”
“It went off well. As for the President’s post at the Y’s Club. I might give it a try this year,” said Lee Eng
“Good, I will muster up support for you,”said Mrs. Ibrahim.
“That is kind of you. We have to leave now,” said Lee Eng.
They were walking to the car Lee Eng leading with Kok Peng looking crestfallen.
“Kok Peng, I saw the fire in you today. You were calm and steady,” said a smiling Lee Eng
“I had a lot of help and support from you,” said Kok Peng, ” and you believed me”
“Of course, I believed you.”
“But why did you agree to keep quiet about the whole matter?”
“I only agreed that you and I will not spread the word around,” said Lee Eng.
“What do you mean?”asked Kok Peng.
“Come on Kok Peng, don’t be so dumb, let me call the maid first.”
With that she went to the public phone on the school corridor, slotted in a coin and dialed a number.
“Hello, Flora, we will not be back for lunch. You go ahead and eat. We are going to a posh restaurant. When I come home, I will tell you what happened at the meeting. You will not believe it,” With that Lee Eng placed the receiver down.
[All characters in the story are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]
Filed under: Short Story | Tags: Einstein in Singapore, English short stories from Asia, fiction around historical events, Kurlywee, Singapore fiction, Singapore short stories
“Can’t imagine that this is the last time I’ll do this here,” Raghavan Nair sighed and remarked to David Levy, the lanky English teacher who shared the long hard rosewood desk with him.
Raghavan had just finished marking the last examination script on that Friday afternoon and placed it neatly on the large pile of scripts. The assistant mathematics teacher tied the scripts into a neat bundle before locking them away safely in the large wooden cupboard at the side of the teacher’s common room. He was elated that his whole class of at Anglo Chinese Free School had passed the algebra/geometry paper. This would mean that they should get good results in mathematics for the Junior Cambridge Examinations in the following year. A few of them would also make it to the Senior Cambridge Examinations. He was gratified to have given them a sound foundation in the subject. If this was his going-away present, then he took it as a good omen for his future.
“Lecturing at the University should be easier, Raghu” said David.
“The Madras Presidency College is not yet a university, although they are aspiring to be one. I’ ll only be a tutor. They should also let me continue the studies where I left off seven years ago . That is what Mr Roberts has asked for me, ” replied Raghu.
“Has the headmaster so much influence?”
“He and the Vice-Principal of the College used to teach together in Bombay,” said Raghu
“That’s good. All colleges want to be universities and they need money. A professor from Germany is coming here to make a collection for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem,” said David, waving a handwritten note on a yellow sheet of paper in front of him.
“This professor must have a lot of free time,” said Raghu.
“He’ll have to depend on the Meyers and Montors and not on David Levy for his collection,” said David. The Meyers and Montors were the famous Jewish families of the day.
“Who’s the professor?”
“ A Dr Einstein,” said David.
“Albert Einstein? “ Raghu could not believe his ears.
“Yes. He’s on his way to Tokyo for some lectures. Why?” asked David
“ Dr Einstein is the most famous scientist who ever lived,” said Raghu.
“ I didn’t know that,” David handed him a piece of paper, “I picked it up at the Chesed-El Synagogue.”
Raghu lapped up the neatly handwritten notice voraciously. It made some mention of the scientific achievements of Dr Einstein which Raghu felt did not do justice to the great man. If Raghu could somehow meet this famous scientist and get an autograph, it would give him a boost when he started his new tutorship at the Madras Presidency College. How grand would it be to tell his colleagues about such a meeting with Dr Einstein.
“ There’s no mention of a public lecture,” Raghu said with disappointment. All visiting dignitaries gave public lectures.
“It’s no more the fashion, but Mr Meyer has invited the Singapore community to meet Dr Einstein at his residence at Belle Vue in Oxley Road. ” David said pointing to the notice.
“How do I meet him?”
“You want to meet him?” asked David.
“Of course,” said Raghu.
Before leaving the room ,David Levy agreed very gallantly to take Raghu along with him to Mr Meyer’s house to meet Dr Einstein. The local Jewish community was always welcome at Belle Vue. Raghu was ecstatic. He could picture himself having a few words with Dr Einstein about how much he admired him. He must choose his words correctly and rehearse them. Then he would ask for Dr Einstein’s autograph.
How fortunate that he had been keeping abreast with all the goings-on in the scientific community. Otherwise, he would never have known so much about Dr Einstein. He had to thank the Headmaster of Anglo Chinese Free School, Mr John Roberts for his magnanimous gesture of sharing scientific journals and magazines that he subscribed to, with his own money with his teaching staff.
Raghu brought out his large desk diary from his leather bag and noted meticulously the important date of Dr Einstein’s visit ,which was three weeks’ away, but as he flipped the pages, a troubled look appeared on his face. In his excitement, he had completely forgotten that he was to leave for good to Madras by steamer a week before the visit. His cousin Achuthan (Achu) had already booked the tickets for both of them. He had given notice of resignation to the Headmaster . Since the steamers did not ply frequently between Singapore and Madras, postponing the trip would mean one or two more months’ additional stay without a job. This would cut deeply into the savings that he had accumulated over the past seven years.
He was tempted to forget about the whole episode and run after David Levy to apologise. He hesitated. Would he ever get a chance again to meet Dr Einstein again? What thrilled him even more was the chance to use this meeting as a testimonial to carry him further in his career. He remembered reading in the mathematics journal that a letter written by a humble Indian clerk to Professor Hardy of Cambridge University had propelled Srinivasan Ramanujan of Kumbakonam, Madras to become one of the leading mathematicians of the day. Of course, he could not compare himself to that genius Ramanujan, but who knew what could transpire from such a meeting, especially now that he was embarking on a future University career. Yes, he decided that it was worth the sacrifice.
It was getting late and the daylight was fading. All the other assistant teachers had left the school building. He put on his white drill coat over the white shirt and the white drill pants, the standard uniforms for all teachers and assistant teachers. It would be dark soon and the school and its surroundings at Telok Ayer Street had yet to be electrified. It was not very safe to be in the area after dark because of the presence of many opium dens and addicts. He decided to return on Monday to collect his belongings and clean out his desk. It was drizzling lightly when he left the thatched roof school building. He had not bothered to take his umbrella when he left for work because it was so sunny. He had to brave the rain at the tram stop because there was no nearby shelter. He took the electric tram and got off at Kampong Glam and carried his portly frame home along the backlane, which was lit here and there by the candle light from the adjoining houses. The suit protected him from getting thoroughly wet.
Home was a “bachelor’s mess” in a rented two storey house with part atap roof and part Chinese-riled roof next to Rochor River where five Indian bachelors, including Raghu and his cousin Achu had set up house and employed an Indian cook for preparing their meals and oing the other odd jobs such as cleaning the quarters.
A money lender Perumal Chettiar owned the premises. It was conveniently located in the heart of the Indian quarters of the colony, it was within walking distance to the tramline , there were a couple of public water standpipes for drawing fresh water and there was daily collection of night soil by the Chinese coolies. Raghu had a soft spot for these unfortunates, who made a living by collecting and disposing of human faeces. Many of the residents shunned them, but he always had a kind word, a piece of fruit or a biscuit whenever he chanced to meet them on on his rounds at his house and a fat monetary tip during the Chinese New Year Season. Every fortnight, the Rural Board sent a worker to spray oil and chemicals on any pool of standing water to prevent the breeding of mosquitoes which spread malaria.
He was greeted by unusually busy activities along the banks of the Rochor canal. The residents were celebrating the coming of electric light to the area. When the electric light came to the European quarters in Tanglin, it was rumoured that Rochor would be the next in line, but it had taken three years. He spotted his neighbours ceremoniously throwing bundles of candles and kerosene lamps into the muddy canal. He would not be that hasty, he thought.
At the bachelor’s mess, he found his room mates in a jolly mood after a hefty rice and fried chicken meal laced with cheap beer bought from the British army mess. One of his roommates worked as a store clerk at the Naval Base and had convenient access to cheap alcohol. Nobody was in a mood to engage in serious talk, least of all his cousin Achu. Two years his junior, the two of them had grown up together in the village in Cochin India, with Raghu being the studious type and Achu the athletic type. Even now, Raghu envied the well-sculpted body of his cousin, who fitted very easily as a constable in the fledgling Police Force of the colony. The cousins had been close, but the family feud had set them apart and they lived together in the same mess only as a matter of convenience.
It was only by accident that he had met his cousin in Singapore. Although he left India, Raghu kept in touch with the goings-on in Cochin, his native state and its language Malayalam. He subscribed to Malayalam weeklies from Majid Rowther , the owner of an Indian grocery shop, Zam Zam Store along the nearby Buffalo Road. Majid’s grandfather had been an Indian convict who had been deported by the British to Singapore for undertaking public works in the mid-1850’s. After his release and the disbandment of the convict labour force, his grandfather had decided not to return to India, but to start family here with a Malay lady. Majid was proud of his lineage and used to boast that his grandfather was one of the masons involved in the construction of the Government House at Edinburgh Road, where the British Governor Lawrence Guillemard was living. Majid, part Malay and part Indian had a family in Cochin , but being a Muslim, he had also set up another family with a Bugis lady living in Kampong Glam. Majid had a thriving business and with his connections in India, Zam Zam Store supplied most of the needs of the South Indians in Singapore, who worked mainly at the rattan factories, cattle sheds or pineapple farms around the Farrer Park area. Among other things, Majid also brought in Tamil and Malayalam language newspapers through travelers who arrived from Madras. On one occasion when he went to Zam Zam collect his weeklies, Raghu met the newly arrived Achu, who had been recruited as a policeman. Despite Raghu’s protests, his house mates who were all from Cochin had taken in Achu as a boarder when a vacancy arose. Only of late, when there was a prospect of Raghu returning home after a self exile of seven years had the cousins started communicating with each other.
The next morning, Raghu called Achu aside and told him, “ I have to postpone my trip home.”
“Dr Albert Einstein’s coming here during that period.”
”Who’s he?” asked Achu.
“The world’s most famous scientist and I want to meet him,” said Raghu.
“You think he wants to meet you?”
“No, that’s not what I mean . My friend will take me to meet him,” said Raghu.
“You said that you wanted to go home, meet the family that you left so long ago, look for a bride and even a job at Madras College. Now you want to give up all this so that you can meet this scientist, ” said Achu, twirling his moustache.
“ Yes, I want to do all that after meeting Dr Einstein.”
“Do you know how much trouble I took to get these steamer tickets? I had to ask Inspector Jeffreys to talk to his friend at the British India SN Company to give us priority, “said Achu.
“Well, I am sorry. I can find a buyer for the ticket. You need not worry,” said Raghu.
“You’ll be disappointing Madhu mama, your mother and my mother. They are eager to welcome you back. In fact, my mother has even found a suitable bride for you.”
His uncle , Madhu mama eager to welcome him back- indeed! Does a leopard change his spots?
“ I’m not looking forward to meeting Madhu mama,” said Raghu.
Raghu recalled that as a child in his native state, his grandmother used to sit him on her lap every evening to recite prayers in front of a large lamp with a burning wick in front of the picture of the family deity, Lord Muruga and tell stories from Hindu mythology. He always remembered Dushhasana from the epic Mahabarata as the wickedest evil man he had come across. As he grew up, he came to believe that Madhu mama, his uncle was Dushhasana reincarnated to this world.
“Why are you so hard on him? He also treated me badly. That’s why I came here, but I bear no grudges, ” said Achu.
How could Raghu not bear grudges? The mention of his uncle brought about the rage that he had managed to control for the past few years. In the matrilineal system in a small village in Cochin, his maternal uncle Madhavan Nair was a despot who ruled the house with an iron fist. The Nair family owned a large piece of land with a huge house (tharavad) in the centre surrounded by padi fields which they leased out to small farmers or vassals in return for a yield of the rice. Madhavan’s two younger sisters, the mothers of Raghu and Achu seldom intervened preferring to attend to matters in the kitchen and leaving all the disciplining to Madhu mama. For the slightest provocation, he and his cousin Achu were beaten with a cane. In the matrilineal system, maternal uncles looked after the family. Madhu mama used to boast that he did not marry because he wanted to look after his sisters ‘sons. But it was common knowledge that Madhu mama had illicit relations with some servant girls.
Raghu had met his father a Kunjunni Nair only a few times. The father lived apart from them and looked after his own sister’s family, as required under the matrilineal system.
“I have seen and felt Madhu mama’s cruelty to us and to our servants,” said Raghu.
“He was only following the system,” said Achu.
Yes, Madhu mama was only following the caste system, but he reveled in it. He treated his servants and vassals as dirt. Raghu was especially sad to watch his uncle’s harsh treatment of their children with many of whom he spent his idle hours.
“No wonder Cochin will not progress,” said Raghu.
“Madhu mama did not start the system. It is still there,” said Achu.
Raghu vividly remembered one day when he had announced that a visiting Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda had compared Cochin to a lunatic asylum with its caste system, Madhu mama had slapped him. Until that day, he had disliked his uncle, from that day, he had hated him.
“As I said, meeting Dr Einstein is my priority now, not Madhu mama,” said Raghu
“What about your mother. Think of her. She is getting old and is worried sick about her only son. You left without even telling her,” said Achu.
His mother Amma – that was another story. At the school leaving examinations, he had been placed among the first few in the region and was asked to appear before a board to apply for a place at the Madras Presidency College. Madhu mama decreed that Raghu should leave school and take over the running of the rice fields, but Raghu was adamant that he would get a college education. When he returned home to announce his success, he met Amma returning from the temple, where she had gone to pray that he would not get entry into Madras Presidency college. He had been disgusted with the family.
“ It is not as if I will not return,” Raghu said to Achu.
” Madhu mama is getting old. That’s why I am returning to look after our estate; of course you also have a share of the estate. My mother says that he now spends much time at the prayer altar,” said Achu.
”Evil men cannot be redeemed. He will not escape Lord Murugan’s wrath.”
“Don’t be hard on him. Like he said, leave the past behind.”
“It was he who drove me to Singapore. If not, I would have worked in Cochin after I graduated, “ said Raghu.
“You would never have been able to return if Madhu mama had not withdrawn the Police Report against you about the assault”.
“What assault? Who started it? And you of all the people sided with him,” Raghu sneered at him.
“That was a long time ago and I had no choice,” said Achu.
How could Raghu forget that day? Amma had pleaded with him to stay back with family,” I don’t know what danger awaits you in Madras. You’ll be safer here.”
“Madras is safer that this lunatic asylum,” he had said in the presence of Madhu mama.
“If you leave, we’ll cut you off any rights to the property of this family,’” Madhu mama had threatened.
“Don’t threaten me. You have no right to do that. I know the law better than you,” Raghu had shouted.
“Don’t argue with uncle. Listen to him,” Amma had pleaded.
“I’ll see that you get nothing,” Madhu mama had shouted .
“Neither will you be able to take anything when you go and rot in hell,” Raghu had shouted back.
Madhu mama had removed one of his sandals and thrown at him, hitting him on his shoulders. Raghu had picked it up and threw it back at his uncle hitting him on the face. Madhu mama staggered and fell down and the family who had been watching ran to his aid.
“What have you done?” Achu’s mother, his aunt had lamented.
“I have brought down an evil man, ” Raghu had said.
“ I’ll see you suffer for this,” said Madhu mama and had ordered Achu and the servants to restrain Raghu.
Raghu had fought them off and left the Nair house in Cochin never to return. After that eventful day, he did not have any connections with his family or village. He had heard rumours later that Madhu mama who was an influential man had lodged a police report. He neither cared nor worried about the police report. All he knew that he could not go home without risking arrest.
Raghu had sold the gold chain that he wore around his waist handed down to him by his grandmother for a handsome profit. With that money, he set off for Madras on a 20 hour journey by rail . He spent one and half years in the science stream at the Presidency College supporting himself from the mathematics tuition he gave to children of wealthy parents. For the first month , he was very homesick and missed his mother and her cooking, but gradually got over it. He did not send a single letter to her during this period for fear of having Madhu mama track his whereabouts. This unfilial act had always haunted him. He even used another name to register at the college to avoid being traced by Madhu mama. At the onset of the First World War in 1914, things became more difficult and he found that most of the tuition opportunities started drying up. He could not afford to continue.
Fortunately it was at this time that he met his father’s brother Kesavan Nair (Kesuman) who was visiting Madras to recruit helpers for the Allison Rubber Estate in Kluang , Malaya, where he was a clerk. This kindly uncle arranged to get him a job in the rubber estate if Raghu could raise the money to get to Kluang.
It took Raghu about two months to accumulate the money by doing odd jobs at a clothes factory. After a long journey of ten days- as a deck passenger in a steamer from Madras to Singapore , by train from the Tank Road terminus to Woodlands, by ferry across the Johor Straits and finally by train from Johor Baru , Raghu arrived at Kluang, only to find that the vacant jobs had already been filled. He felt very bad at having to depend on Kesuman’s generosity for the next two months without finding a job.
Then a rumour started circulating that the construction of a new steel bridge across the Johor River near Kota Tinggi needed human heads for sacrifice and that the children of the Indian rubber tappers were being targetted by a gang. The parents refused to leave their children and would not come out for work, although the estate staff assured them that their children were in no danger.
With Mr Allison’s permission, Raghu assuaged the tappers by organising some classes in teaching these children the basic Tamil alphabet and arithmetic during the hours when the parents were out tapping rubber. In return, the tappers got together to provide him with two meals each day and he was happy that he did not have to scrounge from Kesuman, other than sharing his quarters. Daily he used to go to the nearby shrine of Lord Muruga to seek his blessings to get a job. After six months, when nothing better turned up, Raghu was ready to give up and return to India.
His fortunes changed in 1916 when a vacancy for an assistant teacher in Anglo Chinese Free School in Singapore came up. The British were looking for Indians and Ceylonese to teach English in schools because as colonial bureaucracy and European businesses expanded, there was a need for English-speaking clerical staff. Headmasters and teachers posts were exclusively European, the others could only become assistant teachers. He was recruited immediately for teaching English , but when the Headmaster Mr Roberts found out that he had spent some time at the university studying mathematics, he asked him to teach mathematics.
That was seven years ago; Raghavan had grown tired of the lonely life in Singapore and the timely letter from Mr Roberts to the Vice-Principal of Madras Presidency College with a possibility of a tutor’s job encouraged him to return. He intended to settle down in Madras, not with his family in Cochin. It was only after Achu showed him a letter from Madhu mama , that he had withdrawn the police report and would like to leave the past behind ,that he had decided to return to Cochin to see his mother, who he had left so many years ago without even bidding farewell.
Two weeks earlier, he had gone to Kluang to spend the weekend with Kesuman and to inform of his intended departure. It was then that he found out that Kesuman had left Cochin because he had mercilessly thrashed Vasu Thampuran, one of the members of the Cochin royal family when he came upon the Thampuran trying to rape a young girl in the padi fields. After that Kesuman could never return to Cochin again without risking arrest.
“Do you trust your cousin Achu?If you are fed up with your job, I can speak to Mr Allison for a job here. You will not feel so lonely here. ” Kesuman who had by that time been promoted as the Chief Clerk of the estate had said.
“What can a teacher do here?” Raghu had asked.
“Not much now, but the Johor English College will be looking for teachers because they are expanding. Also the new causeway across the Johor Straits will be completed by next year and FMS (Federated Malay States) trains will run between Tank Road station in Singapore and Kluang.”
Raghu had returned to Singapore from Kluang with a heavy heart; this was his only relative who had been kind to him. He might never see Kesuman again.
On Monday, Raghu left early to hand over the marked papers to the Headmaster Mr Roberts and to ask for an extension of two months of his job. Just as he entered the school compound, he was accosted by Mohammed Zain, who was a class monitor.
”Good Morning sir,” Zain said, “ Here is a post card written and signed by all of us. We could not complete it in time for your send-off party last week.”
Raghu muttered a word of thanks and opened the letter. All his fifteen students, nine Chinese, three Indians, two Eurasians and one Malay had signed- under a neatly hand written letter wishing him all the best for the future. The letter went on to thank him for all they had taught them. Yes, he had forgotten the send-off party at the Victoria Confectionary Store at Victoria Street that was held in his honour. It would now be embarrassing for him to continue teaching at the school. Nevertheless, he had to try to be employed for a couple of months more.
Mr Roberts was puzzled why it was so important for Raghu to meet Dr Einstein now. There will be other opportunities because the famous scientist would visit India one day.
“I have already recruited another mathematics teacher in your place, “the Headmaster said. He suggested that Raghu try at the YMCA who usually employed relief teachers.
Just as he was leaving the school with his belongings that he had cleared from his cupboard, Mohammed Zain ran after him and hailed him.
“Sir, Headmaster wants to see you,” he said.
Raghu anticipated that Mr Roberts would give him another temporary appointment for the next two months. This would set him up for the next two months. He entered the office full of hope.
“Raghu, when did you say you will be leaving for Madras now?” Mr Roberts asked.
“In December probably”
“The Vice-Principal of the college Mr Laughlin is leaving India to Ireland for good in mid-November. You will not be able to catch him, if you go that late.”
Raghu was at a loss for words.
“I am not saying that you will not be able to get the tutor’s job at the Presidency College with your capability and experience in this fine school, which by the way will be named after its founder Mr Gan Eng Seng next year. But Mr Laughlin could help you,” Mr Roberts continued.
“Thank you. I could send your letter of recommendation to him through my cousin and say that I will be there only in December,” said Raghu.
“Yes, you could. Will it not be better if you see him in person?”
“Maybe, but I have already given up my ticket.” This was a lie, but Raghu did not want to be seen to be ignoring his advice.
Raghu had no luck at the YMCA. It had been a bad day without any success. He decided to stop at the roadside stall to treat himself to good tiffin of steaming rice and hot mutton curry washed down by diluted yoghurt. Feeling satiated, he headed for home for his afternoon nap.
In the midst of his nap, he was awakened by his housemate Rajan who came in with a stranger.
“Sorry to wake you up, this is Mr Matthai”, said Rajan, “he is the new tenant taking over your place . He wanted to see the house.”
“But….” started Raghu and stopped. Of course, he had totally forgotten that he had given notice to his housemates and he had not informed them about postponing his trip. He had also given notice to his washer man and the milk vendor.
After the visitor left the room, Raghu could not sleep any more. Where would he find a place to live for the next two months? Rented houses were hard to come by and he would now have to spend the next two weeks looking for one.
As he sat down and thought about what was happening, he wondered whether all the sacrifices he was making was worth the meeting with Dr Einstein. As to what would happen in the future , he did not want to think much about it. His delay in returning might cost him the coveted place at the College, which would be unfortunate. But that was the price that he was willing to pay to meet Dr Einstein. There would definitely be other colleges or schools where he would be able to find a job. Next in priority was marriage, he was thirty two now, but one or two month’s of delay did not worry him.
On the next morning, he headed for Zam Zam Store to see Majid Rowther.
“I have a one-way ticket to Madras to sell”, said Raghu.
“One-way tickets are difficult to sell.”
“You know anybody who is leaving for good,” asked Raghu. He knew that Majid was a shrewd man and was trying to take advantage of the situation.
“I could try, but the price will be lower than what you paid for the ticket. Also there will be some expenses for me to get the name changed,” said Majid. Raghu accepted that he had to lose some money in the transaction.
“ Do you know any place that I can rent for a month?” he asked.
Majid was managing a one-room library of Malayalam books which was only a stone’s throw away from Zam Zam Store and behind the Pauper Hospital for Women and Children at Kandang Kerbau. It had Malayalam, English and Sanskrit books being financed by monthly subscriptions.
“If you donate your collection of books to the library, you could be the caretaker and sleep in the library room until you leave. Not too comfortable, but free,” said Majid.
This suited Raghu because he had no intention of taking back much of his seven-year book collection with him to Madras. He moved to the library, a two-storey shophouse along the mud track facing the Serangoon Road Race Course within the next two days. Many Europeans and some wealthy Chinese came to watch and bet on horse races at the race course on Sundays. Once or twice he was tempted to bet on the races, but decided against it.
The whole of the following week was spent looking for temporary job. His relationship with Achu had been strained, he could not understand why. Why should Achu make a big fuss over the issue? He might have to explain to the family why Raghu had postponed the trip, but for that if anyone was to be blamed, it would be Raghu. It was only after much coaxing and pleading that Achu agreed to deliver the letter to the Vice-Principal of Madras Presidency College on his way to Cochin.
Achu left two days before Dr Einstein arrived. He did so without even saying good bye and this hurt Raghu. When Raghu looked back, he realised how lonely his life had been over the past seven years. His existence was no more than going to teach, marking examination papers and the occasional get-togethers with other bachelors. Sundays were spent playing cards with friends or visiting the entertainment park “New World” at Jalan Besar. There were certain Saturday evenings when he drank more than one bottle of beer and spent the time sleeping. He hardly saw any Indian ladies and if there were any , they were usually in purdah. He had no wish to form any liaison with ladies of other races, not because of any aversion but because of complications that could arise . If even inter-caste marriages were frowned upon, what would inter-religious marriages be like in Cochin? He did not develop any strong friendships because most of the friends he made were transients from India, who had just come to amass some money and return home. Unlike home in Cochin, where there was a joint family with the regular festivals, temple visits, visits to relatives and so on, there was nothing that he could look forward to in this god-forsaken land. He was glad that he would be leaving this life behind.
On 30 th October 1922, the Straits Times announced that Professor and Mrs Albert Einstein would arrive in Singapore on the morning of 2nd November by the Japanese Mail Ship Kitano Maru. Dr Einstein, well-known for his theories of relativity had been invited to deliver a series of lectures to scientists in Tokyo. His hosts in Singapore would be a Mr and Mrs A Montor, a diamond merchant. The Straits Times invited the Singapore community to meet Dr Einstein on the evening of November 2nd at the house of Sir Manasseh Meyer, a leading Jewish citizen of Singapore.
Raghu could not contain his excitement when he read this piece of news. He waited impatiently for November 2nd to arrive.
On the appointed date, Raghu decided to have a good lunch at his old bachelor’s mess for a small fee. As he was finishing his sumptuous meal on a large banana leaf , the cook mess Velu tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a letter.
“I found this in Achu’s room when I was cleaning it. Could you post it to him ?” Velu asked.
It was the letter addressed to the Vice-Principal of the Presidency College – Achu had left it behind. Raghu could not fathom whether it was a deliberate act or an accidental act. He decided to give Achu the benefit of the doubt. But, now he had blown his chances of a job at the College. He would have to post it now if he wanted the Vice Principal to see it before he left. This would take about 6 weeks and Mr Laughlin might have left by then.
He took a rickshaw from Rochor Road to Oxley Rise. The ride took almost an hour. When he reached Belle Vue, he could see some activity within, but there were no crowds on the dirt track outside. Obviously the general public knew very little about the great scientist. Belle Vue was like a palace, with Moorish architecture and situated on top of the hill. One or two chauffer driven cars came up and dropped passengers who went inside the premises. He had brought a cutting of the Straits Times invitation in case he needed it. It started raining and he took shelter on the veranda on one of the shop houses in the neighbourhood. He waited impatiently for David Levy for almost 45 minutes. There would be a reception later in the evening and he had to get to meet the great man before that.
When an hour had passed, he gathered courage and approached the entrance. There was a young fair skinned boy at the gate, who was greeting visitors. Raghu showed him the Straits Times announcement and asked whether he could go in. The boy disappeared and returned within five minutes saying that he could.
He was led into a large banquet hall, where a band was playing some Viennese waltzes softly. The great man was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room dressed in a white coat with an ill-fitting tie. He had a straight moustache and curly hair which he had combed neatly. He was alone because the rest of the guests were conversing with each other and going to the large banquet tables to help themselves to drinks. Fools, Raghu said in his head- don’t you know the value of this man. Dr Einstein smiled at him as he approached.
Raghu was trembling with excitement and could not say anything. He prostrated himself in front of him, an Indian custom of obeisance that he had never accorded to anybody since he was a teenager; and for which he had earned rebuke from his elders in Cochin. He did not believe that any of those who he knew deserved such respect. But for this great man- it was different.
When he looked up, Dr Einstein was smiling. Raghu was at loss of words.
“Good evening , sir,” was all he could say and offered his hand.
“Guten abend”, said Dr Einstein taking it and shaking it. All Raghu’s rehearsed speeches would now be useless because the great man spoke German, not English. How foolish of him not to have thought about that.
The congregation was getting up and it was apparent that they were adjourning for the reception. Someone approached Dr Einstein to invite him. Raghu brought out the newspaper cutting and made a sign with his hand as if to ask for an autograph. Dr Einstein took out his fountain pen from his coat pocket and signed next to his photo. Raghu folded his hands in a prayer like form to thank him. Dr Einstein was still smiling as he was leaving.
He had met the great man, shaken his hands and got his autograph. He was disappointed on how soon it had all been over. When he was leaving the house, a rickshaw stopped in front and out hopped David Levy.
“The floods, there are floods at Scotts Road. I’m sorry I’m late,” he apologised.
“Never mind, I met Professor Einstein, “beamed Raghu.
“I have to go in for the reception,” said David and left.
On his way home, Raghu replayed the meeting in his head. He had met the great man, but how was he to know that Dr Einstein did not speak English? If only David Levy had turned up earlier, he would have had more time with him. What a big letdown? But he had the autograph, but when he examined it, he realised that the ink had smudged on the cheap quality newspaper. But the signature was still legible. Was his great sacrifice worth the moments he spent with Dr Einstein? That night he recorded his meeting with Dr Einstein in his diary in great detail. The next day, he went to Serangoon Road to get the newspaper article framed. The glazier only framed photos of gods and goddesses of various religions . Raghu had to convince the glazier that Einstein was a prophet before he agreed to frame his picture with the autograph.
On his way home, Raghu read this in the Straits Times.
It reported that at the previous night’s reception, Mr Montor who spoke in English had said that the Jewish community deemed it a high honour to receive Dr Einstein as one whose mind has soared beyond the range and placed him among men like Democritus, Galileo and Newton. Dr Einstein had responded in German with translations. He said that science was the property of all nations and was not endangered in any way by international strife for it always had a healing influence on those people who looked beyond the horizon.
The he had gone on to ask support for his cause from the Jewish Community for contributions to a University in Jerusalem.
Raghu cut out the article and pasted it in his diary. He wrote a letter to Achu about his meeting with Dr Einstein and that he intended to return in a month’s time. He was in two minds about asking about the well-being of Madhu mama and the rest of the family. Finally he relented as a gesture of goodwill now that he was returning home. He had to heed Dr Einstein’s call- if the great man could talk about a healing influence, Raghu, as a fellow scientist was also prepared to end the family strife.
Feeling confident, he posted Mr Robert’s letter to the Vice Principal of Madras Presidency College giving his credentials, his past attendance at the College many years ago under an assumed name and asking for considerations of an appointment as a tutor. He hoped that they would grant him an interview in Madras on his way to Cochin.
It was time to book a ticket in the steamer for his trip home. He went to Zam Zam Store to collect the money owed to him by Majid Rowther for his ticket. Majid was away on leave in India and would only return three weeks later. This meant a further delay for his departure.
Over the next three weeks, Raghu had to live extremely frugally, cutting down on all but the bare essentials. Fortunately, he had a roof over his head at the room in the library. He felt that he had to bring home most of the money that he had saved in order to start a new life rather than spend it freely. He did not know what the future held for him there, but he knew that his savings could make the future brighter. Once or twice, he was tempted to consult the Tamil astrologers and palmists who set up their shops daily along Kerbau Road to foretell his future, but decided that he would rather not know about the future.
Exactly three weeks later, Raghu appeared at the Zam Zam Store. It was Majid who was the first to speak, “ I have just returned from Cochin. Last night I went over to your house in Rochor.”
“I have shifted house, don’t you remember that you let me stay at the library,” said Raghu .
“Oh, yes, I forgot. Good that you came. I have important news for you. Don’t go back to Cochin,” said Majid.
“The news is all over the place that your uncle the old man Madhavan was waiting with the Police constables at the railway station. When he found that you were not in the train with Achutan, he flew into a rage, hit Achuthan with an umbrella and then collapsed. The last I heard was that the old man is at home and paralysed,” said Majid.
“What about Achu?”
“I don’t know. He might be in league with the old man.”
“How is my mother?” asked Raghu.
“I don’t know. I used your ticket to go to Cochin. I will pay you for it. Postpone your trip,” advised Majid.
“I may never make the trip again, until that evil man dies. Nobody there wants me. Why should I return?” said Raghu.
Raghu was surprised that he uttered the words “nobody there wants me”. When he thought about it, he realised how true it was. It was understandable that Madhu mama did not want him, but how sad that his mother Amma and his cousin Achu could also gang up against him. But then again ,maybe Amma was not party to it. Why should she want her only son to be in jail? One day he hoped to meet her once again. He had now to change his plans. He had to start all over again in this land, which now took on a fresh face. The timely visit of Dr Einstein had saved him from a life of misery in a Cochin jail.
A few days later, Raghu was pleasantly surprised to see a front page article in the Straits Times headlined “Dr Albert Einstein awarded Nobel Prize”.
Raghu cut out the article for his diary.
The next day, he vacated his temporary abode, donated most of his books and used clothes to Majid and with the rest of his worldly belongings in a suitcase, made a beeline for the Chettiar Temple at Tank Road to offer thanksgiving to Lord Muruga and to seek his blessings for the future for him and his mother.
After a short prayer, he sat down cross-legged on the floor of the temple hall for a free banana leaf vegetarian lunch. Satiated, he crossed over to the Tank Road railway station with his luggage to buy a one-way ticket to Kluang. Malaya would be his future.
[All characters in the story (other than historical persons) are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]
Filed under: Short Story | Tags: Earth tremors, English short stories from Asia, fiction around historical events, Kurlywee, Singapore fiction, Singapore short stories
The abdominal pains arrived in spasms. Chong Li Lian switched on the bedside lamp and glanced at the time piece on the side table. The hands showed the time to be 3.15 am. Even when she switched off the lamp, the luminous hands glowed, as if to indicate the auspiciousness of the moment. The tropical night was warm and she felt the cool fresh wind in spurts with the revolving fan sweeping to and fro. Occasionally, the distant sounds of the roaring motorbikes on the main road broke the stillness of the night.
The windows of the 6th storey apartment in Marine Parade were all shut to keep out the haze brought in by the winds from Sumatra where the annual large-scale burning of forests to clear the land were going on.
She hesitated to awaken her sleeping husband Chong Heng Tim, lying beside her in the large and ornate double bed and snoring gently. The baby was not due to arrive until the next week, she thought while rubbing her distended belly. Yet had not Dr Nirmala advised that the first sign of labour was the regular abdominal pains? She had to be extra careful; she already had one miscarriage and the doctor had advised that she get to the hospital any time that she felt uncomfortable. What an unearthly time to make an entrance? What if the baby decided to come now? Her meticulous mind traced to newspaper stories of babies being born in taxis. No she would have none of that.
“Tim, get up. I think the baby’s on the way.”
Looking rather vexed, he managed a half-mumble of one woken from deep sleep, ” Are you sure Lian? Not due till next week.”
She managed a smile, “Must be impatient.”
“Just like you. Always in a hurry. We’ll leave for the hospital now.” He got up and trudged on to the attached bathroom.
She changed from her nightgown to a loose fitting blue maternity dress that she had saved for the big moment. It had been a present from Heng Tim’s mother before she passed away a year ago. Mother had been devastated at Li Lian’s miscarriage after two months of her first pregnancy and her last wish was that the couple would have a child soon , which would have been her first grandchild. Li Lian had been very close to her mother-in-law; she had lost both her parents many years ago.The moment was here and as Li Lian thought about it, she noticed a blush suffusing her face. She had carried the baby for close to nine months and nothing would go wrong now. At the ripe middle age of thirty six, the moment of motherhood was near. Mother’s wish would soon come true. Tears welled up in her eyes when she thought how mother would have loved to be around to play with her grandchild. Will it be a boy or a girl, she wondered; she and Tim would welcome both the same way. The doctor was prepared to determine the sex of the child, but both of them wanted it to be kept a surprise.
No more nasty jibes from nosy relatives about being childless. How her body has bloated up in the last few months. Uggh…..she viewed herself in the full-length mirror on the wardrobe and did not like what she saw. What a relief it would be to get back to her svelte figure. It would take a lot of dieting with self-discipline and workouts at the gymnasium. She combed her hair and dabbed powder on her face. Life seemed so sweet at the moment, never mind what fate awaited her tomorrow.
“What’s taking you so long, Lian?” she heard Tim’s voice.
“I have to pack a few things, you know.”
“You had all the time in the world and you are only packing now?”he sounded irritated.
“No need to get excited. I am having the baby, not you,” she said.
Why was he getting so excited? By now he should have known that her fastidious character would leave nothing to chance. If you want to know how to organise, learn from Li Lian, isn’t that what the class teacher always told the other girls . It always ended up with her being in charge of provisions for class picnics and excursions and how proud she always was when things went off without a hitch.
On their way out of the apartment, the odd lamp lighted the long narrow corridor. Since the night haze was not that thick, the visibility was fair. She was also relieved because thick haze caused bouts of coughing in Tim, which sometimes resulted in breathlessness. Tim had been advised not to go outdoors in thick haze. Tim, who was holding the carrier bag, was adamant that they should walk down the six flights of steps instead of using the lifts. If the lifts broke down in the middle of its journey at this unearthly hour, what would they do, he asked? In their five years at these apartments, she had never been stuck in one of the lifts, but it was hardly the time or the occasion to discuss such a question. Besides, she could also conjure up other calamitous situations. Could they get a taxi at this hour and what happens if the taxi gets a flat tyre? She put out these rhetorical questions out of her mind and complied with her husband’s command. But she could not help suppress a smile- her portly husband who abhorred any form of physical was walking down the stairs.
Safe at last, sighed Li Lian when the St Mark’s Hospital building came into view amidst its lush surroundings, after an uneventful taxi journey. She had a disdain for hospitals; they brought unpleasant memories of dear ones in pain. How often had she foreseen this moment during the past nine months? But if she reckoned that she would feel something magical, she was disappointed. The abdominal spasms had disappeared and now she was not sure whether she wanted to be admitted to the ward. Tomorrow, her sister Li Hwa might laugh at her when she might be discharged without delivering. It had happened to their neighbour’s daughter after a false alarm. The poor young girl was so ashamed that she did not show her face for two weeks outside the house until she gave birth. Li Lian was never one to stand being laughed at, especially by her sibling. But she had to reckon with her strong-willed husband who would have none of her pleas to return home.
Li Lian was wheeled into an air-conditioned single room in the hospital ward that was so spick and span that the apprehensions went away. I am a tyro at this game and what if I do not deliver tomorrow? Rationalising her actions always provided an easy way out for her to confront her anxieties. Hospital surroundings always had revulsion, but strangely, she felt at ease.
After a cursory examination and asking of a few questions, the kindly-looking nurse said, “Your gynecologist has been informed and she will be here first thing in the morning. You are unlikely to go into labour tonight. Take it easy and sleep well.”
Tim had ensconced himself in an armchair and was dozing off. With his disheveled clothes and uncombed hair, he seemed out of place with the ambiance of the place. The maternity ward was where life started and it was necessary to welcome the newborns in style and not in an unkempt way.
“Looks like the baby is delayed,” she was awoken by Tim stroking her hair. Dawn had broken and Li Lian could hear a bustle of activity in the wards. She felt a bit uneasy and threw up. Without waiting for the nurses, Tim helped to clean her up. Only then did he call for the nurses’ help. It was so much like him to always come to her aid first. The nurse measured her blood pressure and temperature and said, “You are running a slight fever. Don’t worry, your gynecologist will soon be here.”
It had been a late marriage for both of them. Heng Tim had his own printing business that was doing well and Li Lian was the secretary to the manager of a small company. Mutual acquaintances had brought them together and their friendship gathered momentum. She would not say that they were madly in love when they married. They treated each other as friends and had grown fond of each other over the five years they were married. It was a happy event when she conceived the second time , although there were some apprehensions about her age and whether the baby would be normal. But Dr Nirmala had assured the couple that they had nothing to worry about, even though she had one miscarriage two years ago. Of course, there was a procedure to take some amniotic fluid from her abdomen to check if the baby was normal, but the doctor had advised against it.
In the morning, Dr Nirmala was called out for an emergency delivery and Tim had to leave for the office before consulting her. He left word to be informed on what Dr Nirmala prescribed for the fever.
“I might be here for some time and am terribly bored. When you come in the evening, bring me a book to read. Just pick up the first one you come across on the top shelf of my table stand. Also call my office to tell them of my hospitalisation, but do not inform Li Hwa yet,” said Li Lian
“Should you be straining your eyes by reading? You have a slight fever”
”Never mind, it’s better than lying here doing nothing,” she said.
Dr Nirmala arrived later and gave her a thorough examination. She checked through all the charts that were on the clipboard attached to her bed. For the slight fever , the gynecologist suggested that she remain in bed for the whole day, but with only a minor medication. In this late stage of pregnancy, the doctor was not keen to prescribe anything stronger..
” Doctor, does this spell trouble?” asked an anxious Li Lian.
“Not nowadays. It’s a mild fever and we should be able to bring it down before you deliver which could be in three to four days time , ” said Dr Nirmala.
“Will I need a caesarian?”
“Unlikely, everything else was normal at your last checkup two weeks ago,” said Dr Nirmala.
“I had a previous miscarriage'”
“That does not matter. We have come a long way in medicine. Remember Dolly the sheep last year- we are even able to clone life. Don’t worry,” Dr Nirmala assured her.
When Tim called in the late morning, Li Lian lied that the fever had subsided. She was not one to worry Tm unnecessarily but she mentioned that she would only deliver in three to four days’ time. She dozed off intermittently, but the constant movement of the nurses woke her up frequently. She had always imagined hospital food to be appetising, but she did not find it so at lunch time.
She spent the afternoon gloating on how meticulously she had planned for baby. One room of the 5 room apartment would belong to the child. The couple did not intend to have more than one child. If it was a boy, they would paint the room in blue; if girl in pink. She had already placed an order at Courts for a play pen, a pram , a baby chair and a small book desk with a chest of drawers which would be delivered after she returned home.
From now one, the child would be the centre of their attention. They had done so far without a maid, but they might have to get one when Li Lian returned to work in three month’s time. They had bought an apartment near the well-known Tao Nan School so that the child would get priority in the balloting for primary one. She would also volunteer her services to the school in a couple of year’s time. Beng Tim was brought up in a Mandarin-speaking house hold, while she used English at home. Although she disliked the Mandarin classes during her schooldays. she had just found out that one fun way of improving he command of the language was to watch Mandarin serials on TV Channel 8 . Nevertheless, she would speak to the child in English while Tim would use Mandarin so that the child would be exposed to two languages in her formative years.
Tim arrived in the evening with a book and a small round cane basket of small white flowers.
“Someone sent you this basket, Lian. I picked them up at the Nurses’ Station,” he told Julie.
“Whoever sent it could have dropped in to see me,” said Li Lian
“Maybe you were sleeping. There is no name on the card. It just says “To Li Lian with Best Wishes and Love”. This is the first time that I see a basket of jasmines.”
Li Lian took hold of the basket and looked at the card. “This is too amateurish to be from a florist. Looks like someone just picked the jasmine flowers and arranged them in a basket. And the writing on the card looks like that of a child.”
The small room became redolent with the fragrance of the jasmine flowers. “Take them away. I feel nauseous,” said Li Lian, putting her hand over her nose.
Tim’s first reaction was to take the basket out and throw the flowers in the trash bin outside the room, but then he hesitated and placed the basket in the far corner of the room.
“They would not trouble you from there,.The person who sent these may come for a visit later, “ he said.
Tim fussed over her on what she ate, what she did, whether she vomited again , whether she slept and what the doctor said.
” Look, I am being well taken care of,” she protested, “Anyway, how is the haze today?”
“Well, I am not coughing, so it’s not too bad,” he smiled.
“Tim, don’t take risks. Stay indoors.”
“Lian, mine is a desk job, I don’t go out often. People come to see me,” he said
A couple of Li Lian’s office colleagues called in to see her and stayed for a while which cheered her up immensely. They were all agreed that it was probably the office prankster Wahab Ghows, who sent her the jasmine flowers. When dinner arrived, Tim had to coax Li Lian to eat.
Time has wings when you are with loved ones. Before long, it was time for Tim to leave. “If she is not due yet for three to four days, why should she spend another night in the hospital?” he demanded of the houseman when Dr Nirmala had not appeared in the evening.
“”She has a slight fever. Just a precaution. Nothing to fret about. It is better she stays here rather than go home where she may exert herself. Also only Dr Nirmala can discharge her. You could consult her tomorrow morning,” the houseman on duty told him.
Tim and Li Lian got into a small argument over the lie that she had told him about the fever. Around nine o’clock, Li Lian had to persuade Tim to return home. He looked very tired. He wanted to stay the night, but she would not allow it. Li Lian had planned to watch the Mandarin serial ” The Price of Peace” on the television screen in her room, but by the time Tim left, the telecast was already over. So,she switched on the bed light and took out one of the books he had brought. It was the penguin classic “Lady in White”, that was the prescribed text book for English Literature for her final school exam.
Trust Tim to bring the correct book. He had picked up the book from a stack of school books that she was going to donate to the Salvation Army. Since she saw no point in reading the book, she extended her hand to place it on the bedside table. A small note fell out of it on to the bed sheet.
On the yellowing piece of paper was neatly written in blue ink, a dedication that read
Dear Lian ,
Drink hot coffee,drink hot tea ,
Burn your lips and remember me.
Li Lian smiled- why that note must be about 20 years old , in the days where every student carried an autograph book and got their friends to write in them. She wondered how the note got torn off and ended up between the leaves in this book.
She smiled again. She remembered dear Violet and she sighed deeply. Her memories traced back to the first day that she met the hapless girl. They were both at the Marymount Convent Secondary School with their fathers applying for admission to secondary one class. The frail little girl was diffident and did not even return her smile. She was pretty, but the over-sized long pinafore made her look awkward. When the Principal announced that there was only one place left for new students, Li Lian had felt resentment towards her. Two days later , when she joined the class, she was surprised to find Violet also there. Being new girls to the class, the two stuck together for the first few days and their friendship burgeoned. Violet’s father was the Assistant Manager of an Indonesian Bank who had just been posted to Singapore. Violet spoke with an Indonesian accent that she found amusing.
With her ebullience, Li Lian became the natural leader of the partnership with Violet always on her tow. They studied together, ate together in the tuck-shop and gossiped together., with Violet always content to play second fiddle. The other girls nicknamed Violet, Li Lian’s shadow.
The girl had a melancholic look about her and reserved her smile for a very few people. As both of them blossomed into curious teenagers, the two girls had more secrets to share. They discussed the lives of the rich and the famous, the imagined love affairs of their teachers and fellow students. The discussions graduated to taboo subjects of sex and drugs. They gleaned all their knowledge from books, the radio and later the television.
Then one day in secondary three, Violet announced that her parents had separated and that her mother had left the home. She was devastated and took a long to get over it. During those troubling times, Li Lian was the only support for the forlorn girl. She became very dependent on Li Lian for emotional support and made more demands on her time. She would start weeping for no rhyme or reason. At first, Li Lian had felt so proud that she was the pillar of strength for Violet; after a while it became bothersome. It was then the word “parasite ” entered her vocabulary from her biology lessons and she found no better words to describe Violet. Li Lian started inventing flimsy excuses to get away whenever Violet approached her, but she always felt a tinge of regret when she had to lie. These were indeed troubling times for what is lonelier than distrust?
Soon Violet began absenting herself from class in the crucial final year of school. Whenever she appeared, she looked emaciated. After much wheedling from Li Lian, the truth came out. Violet started suffering from chronic asthma and needed frequent hospitalisation. She had asthma as a small girl and now it was recurring. He auntie, the father’s sister who had come to care for her after her mother left, had not meant to publicise the illness other than to the teachers.
Li Lian remembered a particular day when Violet had shown her the pink marks left by hyperdemic needles on her arm. Li Lian had wept uncontrollably , after which she had felt very close to her and to protect her. Her dearest wish then became to see Violet in class each day. The sheer sight of Violet cheered her.
It was during this unhappy period that Li Lian came down with chickenpox and was in quarantine for a week. When she resumed classes, she was told that Violet had stopped coming to class altogether. When this went on for more than 3 days , Li Lian had visited Violet’s house for the first time to find out the cause. Violet had been hospitalised again and the auntie finally agreed to let Julie accompany her to the Singapore General Hospital.
What she saw in the disconsolate ward had broken her heart. Violet lay with her face in an oxygen tent gasping for breath. In spite of her serious condition, she managed a weak smile.
“You don’t have to talk,” Li Lian had said . There they were holding each other’s hands with tears streaming down Li Lian’s face.
She still had vivid recollections of the scene. After a while , Violet spoke, “Will I be around much longer?” Li Lian had to press her face against the oxygen tent and do a bit of lip reading.
“What are you saying?” Li Lian had asked.
“I think it’ll be over soon.”
Li Lian had wept, “Don’t say that. I need you around.”
“It is Violet who needs Li Lian,” Violet whispered and gave a weak smile. “Will you remember me?”
Li Lian had been too distraught to say anything. She had never felt so helpless.
“Will you come tomorrow? Violet needs Li Lian,” said Violet
“I promise I will come in the afternoon,” Li Lian wiped the tears from her face.
The auntie lay her hand gently on Li Lian’s shoulder. “Let her rest. She has been cheered up by your visit.”
Li Lian had never felt so miserable in her life as when she left the ward on that day. When she returned home that evening, her mother was almost in a hysterical state, thinking that something untoward had happened to her daughter. She calmed down when Li Lian explained the situation. That night, Li Lian cried herself to sleep.
The memory of the next day had been blurred by the passage of years, but now it came clearly into view. Li Lian had woken up with a slight headache and her intention was to skip school and visit Violet in the morning instead of the afternoon. Surely her teacher would understand. When she was walking to the bathroom in the 3rd storey apartment, she felt everything moving. Suddenly her legs gave way and she found herself sitting on the floor. Her mother rushed her immediately to the outpatient’s clinic because she thought it was connected to her earlier bout of chickenpox. There was already a large queue of patients waiting to be attended to. By then, Li Lian was feeling better and she wanted to go and visit Violet at the hospital, but her mother insisted that she consult the doctor.
Around 11 o’clock, one of the doctors came out and spoke through a loud hailer “Ladies and Gentlemen, the meteorological office has confirmed that there were slight earth tremors experienced in many parts of Singapore early this morning because of a severe earthquake in Sumatra. It is the first time that this has happened here. Many of you might have felt dizzy or seen the slight movement of buildings. If that is the case, there is nothing to worry about. You are not sick, you might want to go home.” There were similar announcements in Mandarin, Malay and Tamil by various nurses.
There was a murmur and many patients started leaving. Li Lian left her mother and rushed to the hospital in a taxi. As soon as she entered the ward, she had a premonition that something was wrong. She rushed to the room to find an empty bed with the bed sheet removed. She had sat down on the floor and wept until a nurse came and took her to a resting room.
As she remembered the incidents that happened many years ago, her eyes moistened. During the first few years, she had remembered Violet during the anniversary of her death. She kept in contact with Violet’s auntie until she left for Indonesia. On the tenth anniversary, she had posted Violet’s photograph in the obituary column of the newspaper with the word ” To live in the hearts that you leave behind is not to die.” She had received a letter from Violet’s auntie in Bandung after a few months saying that she was very touched by Li Lian’s gesture. Over a time the images had blurred and Violet slowly faded from her memory.
Her eyes fell on the basket of jasmines in the corner of the room and she could still get the fragrance. She did not like it one bit. She rang for the nurse and requested that the bouquet be removed because she was feeling nauseous. When she looked at the clock , her eyes fell on the date of 7th March. Such a coincidence, Violet had passed away on the day of the earth tremors on 7th March 1977. It had indeed been a frightening and sad experience for her. And now 20 years later to the letter, would she give birth on this day, she wondered? It would be a good story to tell her child, she decided.
As she thought more about the coincidence, she felt uneasy. She wanted to sleep, but could not. She felt cold all over and needed three blankets to keep warm. The nurse turned down the air-conditioning, but it did not help. She asked for the windows to be opened to let fresh air in. She looked out into the dark night now thick with haze, lit up only by ghostly looking street lights. She thought she saw the haze fluttering in the wind or was it the curtains? Her eyes were deceiving her. There was a giggling sound that seemed to come from the corridor through the half-opened door of her room. Her thoughts began to trouble her. After all, many patients may have spent their final hours in the bed she was lying and their souls may be still haunting the place. She was not one to believe in the supernatural and thus shut out these thoughts from her mind. She asked for a sleeping tablet, but the houseman advised against it. The nurse brought a cup of warm ovaltine.
After drinking the hot beverage, she dozed off for a while. She woke up feeling extremely feverish and hot and rang for the nurse. The nurses came in and started sponging her with cold water. The houseman had put her on a drip. Within minutes, she felt the abdominal spasms starting again at regular intervals. Suddenly she felt that she was lying in a pool of water.
“The water bag gas burst. Move her to the labour ward. Page Dr Nirmala,” she heard a distant voice.
“Call my husband please,” she shouted.
She was in the midst of labour and pain seared through her body. Although feeling delirious she consoled herself that this was all for her child. She had always imagined childbirth to be a magnificent affair, but this was a far cry from that. She could hear the calming voice of Dr Nirmala asking her to push over and over again. After what seemed like a lifetime of pain, she found herself holding a l little baby girl to her to her body. She was so relieved that the pain had lessened and the baby looked normal. She remembered Tim entering the room , holding her hand and stroking her forehead.
” The beauty entered the world at 5 am,” said Tim.
Li Lian smiled weakly, ” Yes, she is a beauty. How is your cough? The haze is bad.”
“Let’s talk about you and the baby now. I am all right,” he said
The nurse gently took away the baby despite Li Lian’s protestations.
It had been an enervating experience and the last thing she remembered was Dr Nirmala’s voice saying to Tim, “Cut down the number of visitors if you can. She is having a high fever. I have given her medication to bring it down.”
Li Lian was in oblivion. She felt light and was floating in the air and everything seemed so carefree. Now and then, she would find a petal or flower gliding past in the wind. She flew up to the petals but each time she got near, they raced away from her. Finding a bench, she seated herself to catch her breath. She was distracted by a giggle. Turning around, she was startled to see a girl who resembled Violet. Her voluptuous body shimmered through the diaphanous nightgown that she was wearing. The girl looked absolutely stunning. She carried a garland of jasmine flowers that Li Lian used to see in Indian flowershops.
“What are you doing here?” asked Li Lian.
“What a short memory you have?” the girl replied.
“What is this place?”
“It’s home. See what it has done to me,” said the girl twirling the curls of her hair.
“Why, you haven’t aged. Are you always this way?”
“Most of the time. Glad that you came. Now we can be together,” smiled the girl.
“Do you want me to stay?”
“What a silly question?” The girl looked cross.
“But I can’t. Honestly, I cannot.”
“You promised to come. You promised not to forget me. Let me put this garland around your neck to welcome you.” said the girl plaintively.
“I haven’t forgotten you. I have to return to my husband and baby”
“But you can’t leave me. You promised to come.”
“I have to leave. You must have other friends here, “said Li Lian
“I won’t let you go,” the girl gripped her wrist, “You promised to come”
“Let me go. Let me go”, shouted Li Lian trying to break loose.
“What’s the matter” the nurse was holding hand.
“Don’t let them take me away. I want my baby,” Li Lian’s tears were streaming down her face.
“Nobody’s going to take you or your baby away. I ‘ll bring your daughter to you”.
Li Lian spent the better part of the next hour holding her daughter wrapped up in a pink blanket. She was advised against breastfeeding the baby because of her fever. Li Lian could not stop crying for a long time. When the nurses tried to help, she just brushed them aside. After that they left her alone.
“Where’s my husband?” she asked.
“He left about an hour ago, Do you want us to call him?” asked a nurse.
Li Lian decided not to because he would have to come out into the haze to come to the hospital.
She dabbed her eyes and looked to the corner of the room. The nurse had forgotten to remove the basket with the jasmine flowers, but they had all dried up. She rang for the nurse who removed the flowers from her room.
“Dear Violet, I am so sorry,” Li Lian whispered to herself,’ Rest in peace. I have not forgotten you.” Then she went to sleep with the daughter sleeping in the baby cot next to her.
The nurse came to record her temperature in the afternoon and announced that the fever had subsided. Dr Nirmala came on her rounds to check on her together with the pediatrician. Both mother and child were well,they concluded. The baby had to be taken to be placed under ultraviolet rays because she had developed jaundice.
“Nothing to worry about. Most babies develop jaundice and they get over it,” said the pediatrician
When Tim appeared later with Lian’s sister Li Hwa, there was look of relief in his face. “ I am glad that they have taken you off the drip” he said, “I phoned up earlier, the nurse did not want to disturb your sleep.”
After going to see how the baby daughter was doing in the ultraviolet room and leaving the baby with Li Hwa, he came to her and held her arm. He looked at it closely. “I remember that the drip was on you left arm. Why is there a red mark on your right wrist?
Li Lian gazed at her wrist . Then she replied, “Would you believe if I told you?”
[All characters in the story are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]
Filed under: Short Story | Tags: Comet Kohoutek, English short stories from Asia, fiction around historical events, Kurlywee, Singapore fiction, Singapore short stories
“Kohoutek’s here,” Rahim announced at dinner .
Mother was ladling thick chicken curry on to mounds of steaming rice cooked in coconut milk on three stainless steel plates. She placed cucumber slices on the side of the plate.
“One of your friends?” she asked, passing a plate to him.
“No, it’s a comet.”
” Will it hit the earth and destroy us?” Mother asked while pouring warm tea into three glass tumblers.
Rahim took his place at the round table with the speckled marble top. He was exasperated with her question. That was the trouble when mothers were interested only in gossiping or exchanging cooking recipes with other mothers.
“No. Comets go round the sun. They don’t fall to the earth.”
Mother mopped her forehead with the tip of the sleeve of her dark blue baju kurong, “That is a consolation.“
“Kohoutek has been around for sometime, hasn’t it?” Father who arrived at the dinner table after the maghrib prayer joined in the discussion.
At least, Father has heard about Kohoutek, thought Rahim as he tried to juggle the steaming rice with his fingers. Dressed in a white sleeveless singlet and a batik sarong and with a small paunch developing around his waistline, Father hardly looked like the partner of a trading company arranging for haj and umrah tours to Saudi Arabia and budget tours to Malaysia and Indonesia. But he had never been meticulous about his appearance, unlike Mother who had the knack of enhancing her youthful appearance with the decorous choice of clothes.
“It has been around for the past 8 months and …….,” Rahim said.
“Seen it yet?” asked Father in between taking in mouthfuls of rice.
“Not clearly. It’s too dim. They’re arranging an excursion to Mount Ophir next Saturday night.”
“Who?” asked Father.
“Our science club.”
“Where’s Mount Ophir?” asked Mother who was now seated opposite him.
“It’s in Johor, a few hours bus ride from here. We have to observe Kohoutek from a high point on a clear night. That’s why … Mount Ophir.”
“Are you going to trek up? It will take a few hours,” asked Father.
“We will only go as high as the bus takes us- about half way up, I think, ” said Rahim.
“That means you have to stay overnight,” said Father throwing a quick glance at him.
“Are you going?” Mother butted in.
“I have to,” Rahim took a sip of tea from the tumbler.
“You have to?” Mother continued.
“I’m the secretary of the science club.”
“Oh yes, I remember,” Father said. Father had always shown keen interest in his school activities. He served as a member on the Parent Teacher Group of Victoria School.
Rahim noticed Father and Mother throwing glances at each other. They understood his predicament. There was an awkward silence.
Mother pushed a bowl half full of sliced cucumbers towards Rahim, “Eat more vegetables.”
“It’s like eating grass,” he said.
Father said, “Of course, you can go if you want to.”
Rahim gazed out of the window into the warm Saturday night, “I’m not sure yet.”
“Ask them to go to Bukit Timah Hill. It’s high enough. And you need not stay overnight” Mother said mashing a piece of potato between her fingers.
Rahim pretended not to have heard that inane remark.
“You have added too much chili in the curry,” he said, taking another sip of water.
“I think you should go. It’ll be good……” Father continued.
“And embarrass himself?” Mother stopped eating and cut in.
“Look, the boy has to get over the problem sooner or later,” Father said.
“He will get it over with in his own time. Mrs Rajendran was saying that her son Prakash sleepwalks. She has to hide the house keys at night.” countered Mother emphatically.
“You discussed my problem with her?” asked Rahim
“No, no. She just mentioned it when she came for the Hari Raya visit,” said Mother.
Rahim would have given anything to be like other fourteen- year olds who would have no problems spending nights away from home. Alas, not for him, who still had the nasty habit of bed-wetting during sleep at night. He recalled painfully the suppressed giggles of his girl cousins when he had spent a recent weekend during the March school holidays at the seaside bungalow with his uncle’s family. He was looking forward to spending a few days with that family during the June school holidays when the World Cup Soccer matches would be shown in colour for the first time. His uncle had said that he would be buying a colour television set. The March holiday experience had paid put any such hopes.
Of late, to spare Mother from doing the unpleasant task, he had started clearing up his soiled bed sheets, the rubber mat and sarongs each morning.
“I’ll think about it,” Rahim said.
Mother gazed gently at him, “If you don’t want to go, Father’ll write a letter asking that you be excused. Have some more curry on………”
“I said I’ll think about it,” Rahim repeated loudly, “the potatoes are overcooked.”
“I take all this trouble to cook just to hear complaints,” Mother said with a sigh.
“I’m only saying ……..”
“If you’re not hungry, better to keep quiet,” Father came quickly to her defence.
The conversation came to an abrupt end and the three of them ate silently, avoiding all eye contact. It was seldom that the family sat down together to take dinner. He should not have vented his frustrations on Mother.
As he was leaving the dinner table to wash his hands, Mother called out, “There’s ice cream in the fridge.”
“No, Mother, I’m full,”
“Some pineapple then?”
“No, your food was good. I am sorry,” he said, patting her gently on the shoulders before attempting to leave the dining room.
“Are you not going to watch the Dean Martin show on tv?” Mother asked
“Not tonight, you watch Sandiwara,” Rahim replied and left the room.
Alone in his bed room, Rahim changed into his sarong and singlet before cogitating on the ill-luck that had befallen him. Father had brought him to see the family doctor when the bed-wetting problem persisted beyond primary school. Talking about bed-wetting to a doctor as a child might have been cute, but as a teenager, it was humiliating. The doctor could offer nothing other than an advice not to take fluids and to empty the bladder before bedtime. But this strict regimen, which he followed scrupulously, yielded nothing. He was assured that he was not the only one with such problems and that he would soon grow out of it.
His grandfather had opined that bed-wetting would stop after his circumcision ceremony. Father wanted it to be done at the clinic, because it was hygienic but grandmother and Mother decided to hold a joint ceremony near the surau at their village in Pahang because four boys in the joint family were coming of age. Although he was terrified when Tok Mudim placed him on the banana stem with his legs astride to remove the foreskin after reciting a prayer, he had managed to block out the pain by imagining how good it would be to be rid of the habit. He was the only one who did not yell and he had won praise for that. He was the envy of the other three boys until the bed-wetting started after the wound had healed. That was two years ago.
Father and Mother were equally concerned. He was the only child and they doted on him. Mother had two miscarriages after his birth and the gynecologist advised that the couple should not try to have any more children. Rahim was a good son- he was sedulous in his studies, he was respectful most of the time, he was adept at Malay and English, he was in the school sepak raga team, he fasted during the month of Ramadan and observed daily prayers.
A family friend had advised Mother to seek out a pawang who had prescribed an extremely bitter herbal tonic concoction,, which also did not have any effect. When he overheard Mother discussing the uses of acupuncture over the fence with the neighbour Mrs Christina Wong one day, he begged mother not to consider it at all because he was scared of needles.
Then he decided to be scientific about it. Since the unfortunate habit was not a daily occurrence, he kept tabs to discern any definite pattern and then tried to predict what would happen each night. He gave it up when this caused him great anxiety, especially when he was proved wrong.
The thought of going to bed each night filled him with consternation. It was the loneliest feeling to get up at night drenched in urine. He felt very envious whenever his friends mentioned how nice it was to sleep late on a cold rainy day. He had his share of teenage woes- facial hair, body odour, pimples and teenage crush on a couple of girls ; he did not bargain for this additional problem. He went to sleep with a troubled mind that night only to be awakened when he found himself lying in a pool of water.
On Monday morning, the science teacher gathered an eager group of boys, in white shirts and khaki shorts. In a preemptory tone, he announced that the observation trip to Mount Ophir was off because the weather prediction for the coming weekend was for cloudy conditions and light rain. This was met immediately with jeers of indignation. Rahim felt a pang of guilt when he joined in the jeering.
He could sense the look of disappointment on the face of the middle-aged lanky Teacher, who had awakened the inquiring attitude in him. How could he forget the first science class that Teacher had taken? “Fortune favours an inquiring mind” – he had written in bold capital letters on the blackboard. He had a special affinity for Teacher ever since he praised his article in the school newsletter on why comets got their name from the Greek word “kometes” which meant long-haired. That is how comets appeared to observers- a bright ball of fire with a long tail.
When he announced that the trip was off, Father had merely said, “I hope that you’ll get to see the comet.” Mother gave a sigh of relief and offered some silly remark that there would be other comets that would appear in Rahim’s lifetime.
On Tuesday morning, Teacher summoned a bewildered Rahim to the Teacher’s Common Room and told him , “The trip is on. Ask the students to see me at the laboratory during recess to sign up for the trip.” Teacher was notorious for his fickle-mindedness. Rahim could not concentrate on his lessons; the geography teacher was saying some thing about the effects that the recent Arab oil embargo would have on the economy of nations.
During the recess, Rahim remained in the classroom. He hesitated to march to the laboratory or the tuck-shop. If only the comet had been brighter, he would not have needed to make this unhappy trip. Kohoutek had been hailed as the comet of the century when it first appeared in the middle of 1973, but it had been a disappointment. It was expected to be visible without telescopes in the first few months. Instead its brightness fizzled out and stargazers could not see it without high-powered telescopes from high altitudes. At the same time, the thought that Kohoutek would not come this way for another thirty thousand years thrilled him. His hair stood on end at the very thought on where he would be at that time. This was his chance to observe, describe and write about it in the school magazine. Maybe he was acting silly at being angry at the comet. He was in two minds whether to sign up for the trip or to offer an excuse not to join. Once or twice, he rose up from the chair, but his legs felt heavy and he sat down again. He decided to give the trip a miss.
Recess time was about to end, when he heard a gruff voice of Teacher behind him.
“Abdul Rahim, There you are. I was looking all over for you.” Rahim said nothing.
“Fill up your name and hand this to the school clerk” said Teacher handing him a sheet of paper. Rahim gulped on hearing the instructions which he carried out perfunctorily. He consoled himself that he could still get out of the trip by feigning sickness during the coming weekend.
Mother put on a brave front, although behind that façade, he knew that she was worried. Father was proud of him. During the school assembly time on Friday, the Principal announced the upcoming trip of the science club to Mount Ophir. He ended up by urging all students to read Rahim’s article on comets. Rahim was embarrassed by such fulsome praise, but now he could not withdraw from the trip. And he had to hatch up a plan quickly to get through the night without his secret being found out.
On Saturday morning, Mother started packing items for the trip at their house in Kampong Kembangan, but Rahim was insistent that he should do it himself. She advised him to observe the prayer times and to ensure that he only take any meal if he was satisfied that it was halal food . Other than that he was to ensure that he did not stray from the group and that he obeyed instructions of the teachers. Father assured him that all would be well and that they would pray for him. All students were to bring two changes of clothes, a towel, a warm sweater and a large water bottle filled with water. The school would provide telescopes, tents, sleeping bags, blankets, mosquito coils and Petromax lanterns.
Saturday afternoon saw a group of twenty raucous adventurers dressed in corduroys or denims in a bus bedecked with camping paraphernalia, heading for the mountains. Teacher looked so different in jeans, much to the amusement of the boys. There was boisterous laughing, singing and clapping as the bus wound up the serpentine road. Teacher, who appeared so stern in school, joined in the merriment.
When they were nearing the end of the journey, the temperature dropped and the boys brought out their sweaters. This innocuous event made Rahim edgy. He recalled that sleeping during the cooler months worsened his bed-wetting condition. For a moment, his confidence was shaken. Before he had time to worry about this unhappy turn of events, the bus had reached the camping site. They found a flat piece of ground with wild mushrooms sprouting in the surrounding the area.
Teacher barked out precise orders, “We’ll set camp here for the night. Look out for red ants and mosquitoes.” Rahim by the virtue of his Boy Scout’s training was a natural leader in organizing the teams. By the time the group had laid canvas sheetings on the grass and pitched the five tents around them, the night had fallen and there was constant chirping of crickets all around them. The sky was dark and clear except for the stars that came into view. The strong smell of kerosene emanated from the Petromax lanterns set up to light up the camping spot. Teacher made a hurried inspection of all the tents to ensure that the mosquito coils were lit up. He remarked that here had been many cases of malaria in recent months. After the group started a small campfire, Teacher said, “Take dinner and spend the next four to five hours to observe the comet.”
The boys gathered round the fire for warmth and wolfed down a hurried meal of cold bread with tinned sardines and washed it down by lemon squash. Rahim was careful to keep his liquid intake to a minimum. He found it discomforting not to have running water to wash his mouth to rid it of the smell of sardines.
The boys set up two telescopes and took turns to track the tiny movement of the dim and elusive Kohoutek.
“Look at the milky way. There must be life somewhere out there,” Teacher pointed to the stars. The eager group crowded around him to listen to lucid explanations of the marvels of stars and their origins. His exposition about the celestial sphere, the northern star Polaris, Sirius the brightest star and the southern-most stars of the Southern Cross fascinated Rahim. It seemed so different from the mundane way in which he taught science to them.
Rahim’s heart palpitated when he watched through the telescope the tiny movement of the small speck of light with its tail, which was shorter than what a normal comet should have had. In between his turns to track the comet, he jotted down notes. Was there life on Kohoutek and if so, was there someone on it watching us, he wondered? When it returned in thirty thousand years time, he was sure that mankind would have progressed enough in space travel to visit the comet. Why not? Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon only years ago and NASA was preparing for a Mars mission. The Russians were also not far behind. His report on Kohoutek for the school magazine would indeed be very special. Father would proudly circulate the magazine article in his office, as he often did. Feeling relaxed, he allowed himself the luxury of listening to the night sounds of the forest, which until now had escaped him in his excitement. The mellifluous sounds of Karen Carpenter’s song “Top of the world” from his transistor radio made him feel elated at his situation.
Yet, once in a while, the nagging doubts on the night ahead troubled him. Then he reckoned that five hours of observation meant that the group would only have two hours to sleep before dawn. He would just skip the sleep and pass his time reading a novel. He would leave his pocket transistor radio on. When the muezzin’s call for Fajr prayers sounded around dawn , he would get up. Teacher would not object to that.
A strong cool breeze bringing with it a batch of clouds put out the campfire. The group shuddered. Teacher passed around glasses of hot cocoa from a large thermos flask. Rahim did not drink the full glass. When it became clear that the clouds were not going to blow away, a few boys started yawning.
Teacher gathered the group and said, “You had two good hours of observations. The watching’s over for the night. It might even rain. Get into your tents, rough it out for the night and catch some sleep.”
There were some howls of protest, but Teacher, being the martinet he was, would have none of it. Rahim was devastated. He would have a longer colder night to spend in bed. He developed doubts on his preparations for the night. The Petromax lanterns disappearing one by one with the boys into the tents accentuated his loneliness. Only a single solitary lantern was left standing in the middle of the camping site to keep away any curious wandering animals. He resolved to stay out and to wait for the clouds to blow away. He had enough warm clothes to brave the cold breeze. His throat was parched because he had avoided drinking any water from his water bottle. When he felt thirsty he had merely wetted his lips and had to be content with watching the others sipping water from their water bottles constantly. He would probably come down with a sore throat.
“Rahim, get inside or you‘ll catch a cold,” Teacher’s familiar gruff voice rang out from the tent. Despite his pleading to be left outside as a watchman to alert the group when the clouds cleared, Teacher was emphatic that he should get some sleep. “I don’t want parents to blame me if any of you fall sick.”
Rahim walked towards the excursion bus using his torch hoping to search for a safe place to spend the night in it, away from prying eyes. The leather seat felt so cold and uncomfortable. Besides, he did not relish in the idea of being so far away from his group in the dark of the night.
Thoroughly dejected, he relieved himself in the nearby bushes before creeping surreptitiously into his tent. It was dark, but the gentle snoring told him that his three student mates were fast asleep. He changed into his pajamas. He had to put his contingency plan into operation now. With the aid of the torchlight, he removed a set of clothes, a rubber sheet, a black bed sheet and a tin of talcum powder from his traveling bag. He placed the rubber sheet on his sleeping bag and covered it with the black bed sheet. Then he folded the clothes neatly before placing them beside the bed. If he were to fall asleep and wet the bed, his plan was to quickly change into the new clothes and discard the soiled clothes into the bushes. He had reserved the sleeping spot next to the entrance, so as not to disturb any of his mates. He would use the water from the water bottle to clean himself and dabs of the talcum powder would remove any unpleasant smell. Feeling satisfied that he had made sufficient preparations for any emergency, he sat down on the bed, placed a blanket over his feet and started reading a novel ‘ Aku di sa-buah Pulau” with the aid of the torchlight.
“Switch off the light,” growled a sleepy voice, “I want to sleep.”
“It’s not shining on you. I’m reading a book,” Rahim responded, lowering the intensity of the torchlight.
“Read some other time”
“I always read before going to sleep,” Rahim replied in agitation.
“Shh, get to bed” came other agitated voices. He switched off the torch.
What could he do now? How would he keep awake in this semi- darkness? He sat on the bed and covered himself with the blanket. The warmth was so soothing that he had to rub his eyelids regularly to keep them open. Notwithstanding his preparations, he still had a premonition that his terrible secret would be revealed. He would dwell on pleasant thoughts to keep awake. He would be the star player at the school sepak raga competition that was due to start during the next month. He imagined hearing the joyful cheering of his school mates as he used his acrobatic skills and agility to smash the cane ball over the net with his upturned foot.
Joyful images appeared in his mind. He was with his friends at a carnival where he met clowns of many shapes and sizes. They all looked fuzzy except one with a sad face who gave him candy floss, which stuck to his teeth. Wishing to see how he looked like , he entered the hall of mirrors but could not see his own image. Thoroughly puzzled, he ran out to sit in a roller coaster which whizzed on a wooden frame through the grounds making rattling sounds. He laughed his way throughout the ride until the coaster came to a sudden halt in a pool of cold water which splashed on him and made him shudder.
Rahim woke up with a fright and sat up. The blanket had rolled off his feet, He could feel cold water on his pajamas around his left thigh. It was pitch dark inside the tent. He dipped his fingers in the pool of water on his left and brought them to his nostrils. It did not have the usual noisome stench that he was accustomed to. Just to be doubly sure, he felt the bed sheet with his fingers. It was dry. He searched for his torchlight and shone it towards the pool water. The tipped-over water bottle lay next to his thighs. The lid had not been properly screwed on and the water had seeped out. He glanced at his watch; it was nearing dawn and the muezzin’s call for prayer to the faithful would soon emanate softly from his transistor radio. His companions were still asleep. The night had passed off uneventfully. It was time to get up. He quenched his thirst by gulping down the left-over water from his water bottle.
He crept out of the tent using the torchlight to lead his way to the bushes to relieve himself . Even though the clouds still hid Kohoutek, he looked up and winked at the comet with a smile.
Filed under: Short Story | Tags: English short stories from Asia, fiction around historical events, Kallang Aerodrome Crash, Kurlywee, Singapore fiction, Singapore short stories More stats
“ Basil doesn’t see a future in Malaya. The communists will take over. The French have lost at Dien Bien Phu . Very soon, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaya will fall – the domino effect,” Clara de Brumellar said in between mouthfuls of large chunks of meat from the satay stick.
The conversation took place on the evening of Boxing Day at a large gathering of Eurasian families at the spacious garden of the mansion of the da Silvas at Marshall Road in Katong. The grass was still damp from the afternoon showers after which the sky had cleared. The occasion was the sending-off for the de Brumellar family who were emigrating from Singapore. There was a generous spread of a variety of local dishes and cold meats on a large rectangular table, from which the guests scooped food onto their plates. The desserts- sugi cakes and pineapple tarts were laid out on another smaller table. Adjacent to the table stood a large metal drum filled to the brim with blocks of ice interspersed with bottles of Tiger beer and bottles of Green Spot, Red Lion and Sinalco aerated drinks.
“ But this is our home, Clara,” countered Gloria Tasker.
“We have to think of our children. There’s also a push for Malayanisation of posts. Where does that put us?” asked Clara.
“ Malayanisation means replacing the British.”
“You really think so? The locals take us Eurasians as white- they call us “seranis”. When they get their chance, they’ll ditch us,” Clara said, making a gesture of cutting her throat with her forefinger, “even Miss Question Mark.”
They both laughed.
Miss Question Mark – that was Gloria Tasker, the receptionist at the Kallang aerodrome. When His Excellency the British Governor of Singapore returned from London after a briefing at the Colonial Office about a fortnight ago, Gloria who cut a winsome figure had caught his eye. At the Terminal Building, he had stopped to ask her the local time to adjust his watch. A reporter from Free Press had snapped a photograph of the brief encounter and pestered her for a story for the “people column”. Gloria blurted out that she felt like a question mark because she answered fifty queries daily from air passengers. On the following day, there was a story about Miss Question Mark with an accompanying photograph on the front page. Miss Question Mark became an overnight sensation and many locals who visited the aerodrome to welcome or send off relatives stopped to complement her.
“ Will you be better off in England?”continued Gloria.
“Maybe not us, but our children.”
“You spent all you life here. Don’t you feel for it”, Gloria asked.
“Of course, we do. Basil was in the Volunteer Corps and fought the Japs trying to defend this country,” Clara retorted.
Gloria should not have asked that question. It was common knowledge that Basil would have been punished if not for the timely intervention of Dr Paglar, who was respected by the Japanese conquerors.
“ You should also start looking around,” advised Clara, “at least for Justin’s sake. By the way,where is your son?”
“He is working and could not come. You have relatives in England, we have no connections outside this country,” Gloria replied.
“Your sister’s in Australia, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” replied Gloria in a whisper.
Gloria did not like to talk publicly about Gertrude, her younger sister. Six years ago, Gertrude did not return home one day after her work at Balestier School, where she was the music teacher. Her job also involved her visiting all the five neighbouring schools in the Towner Road area to teach music. Mother who was ever protective of her two daughters was filled with trepidation when she had not showed up the next morning at home or in school. Gloria and Mother had run around calling on friends and acquaintances without any welcome news. Mother who had moved in with Gloria after the war, visited the Cathedral of Good Shepherd daily to pray for Gertrude’s safe return. Gloria even paid for an advertisement in the missing person’s column in the local newspapers. The Police had been called in after four days. It was during the Police interviews that Gloria had her first shock – that Gertrude was very unpopular in the school because she despised Asians and that the school had just kept her because it was difficult to get another teacher of her qualifications. There was a definitely a trace of bigotry in Mother. But Mother’s bigotry was concealed unlike Gertrude’s. As for Gloria and her father, they had no ill-feelings towards other races other than for the Japanese who had mistreated their community.
When no news about Gertrude surfaced, everyone feared that the worst had happened to her in the crime-ridden city. Then Gloria received her second shock three weeks later – a happier one at that. Sister Agnes a teacher from the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus paid a visit with a letter she had received from Gertrude in Brisbane, Australia after marrying Peter Boswell, an Australian soldier she had met during his posting to Malaya. She had eloped because she did not think that Mother would have consented to her marriage to Peter, a divorcee. It was a civil ceremony, she assured them. She asked the good Sister Agnes to persuade Mother and Gloria to accept her and her husband because a spinster in her thirties had every right to make up her mind on the choice of husband.
Mother had found it difficult to live down this scandal of a respectable Catholic Eurasian girl running off with a common soldier and a divorcee. She would have preferred a gainfully employed Catholic Eurasian as a husband for Gertrude- or even one of English, Dutch or Portuguese origin provided they were Catholic – but definitely not an Australian divorcee.
“Why could she not be like you and marry a good Catholic that I selected? I had someone in mind for her- Catherine Woodford’s son, Rodney, who works at Raffles Library. A nice quiet boy who is in the church choir and who would suit Gertie’s musical talents, Instead she runs off to marry a soldier who divorces his wife. When will he divorce her?” Mother had asked.
Gloria had tried to reason with Mother but to no avail. From then on until she passed away two years ago of pneumonia, Mother would have nothing further to do with Gertrude. Mother’s obduracy brought the two sisters who were born ten years apart, closer together and they corresponded regularly. Whenever Gloria read out Gertrude’s letters , Mother would just walk away. Gertrude was insistent that she would only return to visit when Mother accepted Peter as her son-in-law. So incensed was Mother at this request that even at her deathbed, Mother did not want Gertrude’s name mentioned. The couple had no children and although Gloria was not superstitious, she believed that this was because Mother had not blessed the marriage.
Gloria seldom mentioned Gertrude in circles outside the immediate family and had no wish to continue with the conversation with Clara. She excused herself on the pretext of wanting to mingle around. There was much vapid conversation at the evening party. There was nothing much to talk about because Gloria had met most of the ladies at the Christmas midnight mass two days ago. Now and then, the conversation switched to the best country to emigrate to. Although the Eurasians claimed their ancestry from British, Dutch or Portuguese, Britain came out at the top of the list because of their familiarity with the English Language. The Japanese Occupation had played havoc with the lives of Eurasians who were considered as the enemy because of their part-ancestry. The trauma of the ill-treatment and internment was bad, but what were worse were the shattered lives after the Occupation. Many found themselves as widowers and widows. The British Military Administration tried to redress some of their sufferings by reserving special posts for Eurasians in the government service. But the days of their special status would soon be over because the British Empire was already in its death throes. Britain had neither the capacity nor the desire to hold on to its colonies. The other colonial powers were faring no better. The Dutch had been expelled from Indonesia. The French were suffering humiliating losses in Indo-China. The excesses of the two and a half year Japanese Occupation had made it a living hell for the inhabitants in South-east Asia, but it had blotted out the invincibility of the European colonial powers. The Korean War had seen the communists taking over in Northern Asia. The Malayan Communist Party was waging guerrilla warfare in the Malayan jungle. The communist juggernaut was on the move.
Gloria had intended to leave the party by ten-thirty to catch the last bus and then take a 5 min stroll to her two-storey terrace house at Hemmant Road. The skies opened up with a heavy downpour around that time and the guests had to flee indoors to the dining room with their food-laden plates. Inside the house, a large Christmas tree stood next to an olive wood crib with clay figures of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus lying in a manger with the Bethlehem star overhead. There were “oohs and aahs” from some as everyone crowded around the crib to adore it. On the corner of the sitting room, stood a gramophone playing Edith Piaf’s ” La Vie en Rose” on a 78 rpm record. Gloria closed her eyes and let the peace of the moment engulf her for a few minutes. Now that Gloria had missed the last bus, she had no choice but to accept Basil’s offer to send her home in his car. She would have preferred not to, because Basil was clearly inebriated.
“Don’t worry, dear. Basil is steady ,” Clara assured her.
It was an uncomfortable twenty minute experience in their Ford Prefect car for Gloria because Basil drove erratically. At one point, the car ploughed into a clump of short bushes near Kampong Amber and came to a halt. On hearing the ruckus, a group of street urchins appeared from nowhere and assisted to push the car back onto the road for a small tip.
The car proceeded along Mountbatten Road until it came to the crossing with the Kallang Aerodrome runway. There were no flights on that day and hence the gates were open for the vehicle to pass. As they coasted along Mountbatten Road, Gloria could discern the distant lights of the Aerodrome terminal building.
When she was dropped off at her house around midnight , she heard the familiar twang of a guitar from the sitting room, which signaled that her teenage son Justin had returned home. She gave a sigh of relief.
Before bidding Gloria goodnight, Clara said again, “ Think about what I told you about emigrating. Don’t wait too long.”
What grandiose plans Gloria and Railway Station Master Ronald Tasker had for Justin- they would educate him to be the best doctor of the colony. That was one field that Eurasians excelled in and the medical service was one that did not have much discrimination by the whites. Ronald did not have the opportunity to study medicine at the King Edward VII Medical College to qualify as a dresser, the term used for a person who assists a surgeon during the operation, because his family could not afford it. In those earlier days, only whites could become medical officers; but things had changed . How the great war and the Japanese Occupation had cruelly thwarted all their best laid plans. Ronald was interned by the Japanese because he had been active in the Volunteer Corps. Gloria who had joined the Kallang Aerodrome as a guide when it opened in 1937, much to the chagrin of her parents was allowed to continue with her employment for a few months until the post was abolished by the Japanese Administration. After her retrenchment Gloria had managed to find work at a dispensary run by a Eurasian doctor to eke out a meager living for the family.
Other than Ronald, the rest of the family Father, Mother, Gloria, Gertrude and Justin were spared because Ronald’s friend Jayaram Menon took them under his protection. Jayaram had some influence because he was a sergeant in the Indian National Army, which the Japanese were courting in the hope of making inroads into India. He had managed to obtain and paste a large chit signed by a Japanese Colonel at the entrance of their house at Hemmant Road. Shortly afterwards, Jayaram had gone off to fight the British in Imphal and died in action. Although Gloria had been sent to the Nippon-go classes to learn Japanese, she never had the desire to pick up the language. Gloria did not know what the chit said, but no Japanese soldier entered their house. The family members had only to be careful not to offend Japanese soldiers when they were outdoors.
As food and jobs became scarcer, the Japanese had decided to transfer all Roman Catholics of Singapore to Bahau, an uninhabited region in the jungles of Pahang where they could live off the land. Japanese propaganda glorified Bahau as a place where the new inhabitants would till the fertile soil and send surplus food to Syonan (Japanese name for Singapore). When the Japanese agreed to release Ronald from his tribulations on the condition that he and the rest of the family agree to be transferred to Bahau, Gloria had agreed whole heartedly. They had all taken part in the great exodus to Bahau from the Keppel Railway Station where Ronald had been the station master. The glowing picture of Bahau that had been painted to the settlers turned out to be a nightmare. The family was alloted a small plot of land in the secondary forest to clear, build a hut and till the land, all of which they had no experience in. Somehow they survived by their wits and the Straits dollar notes that Father had smuggled in together with drugs , medicines, antiseptics, cotton wool, lint and bandages that Gloria had managed to bring along with her, which they sold to others for services. Wild elephants on the stampede and poisonous snakes were a constant menace. Conditions were appalling and the health situation deteriorated rapidly. Regular bouts of malaria weakened the family and it became almost a habit for them to fall ill every month. Typhoid and dysentery appeared soon. Beri Beri and scabies drained the energy out of the fittest of the settlers. Hunger was a constant companion. Father was the first to succumb when he plucked and ate some wild poisonous mushrooms in the forest because of acute hunger. He was buried in a shallow grave at the little cemetery.
With liberation from the Japanese in 1945, the surviving members of the family returned with their meager belongings to Singapore. When they returned to their house, they found that an Indian family was occupying it. Fortunately, Father had carefully preserved many official documents and brought them with him to Bahau. The new occupants left without a fuss when Ronald produced the title deed . But he had never regained his health nor his spirit and death came as a salvation about five years ago. Miraculously, the others in the family – Mother, Gloria, Gertrude and Justin survived the ordeal. For a while, Mother and Gloria took on jobs as cooks and servers in the soup kitchens that had been set up by the British Military Administration to feed the undernourished population. Their financial situation improved when Mother bought a Singer Sewing Machine and started a small home business of tailoring clothes for Eurasian clients. Gloria was allowed to return to her old job at the Kallang Aerodrome when it started operating . Justin ended up as an over aged student in is his class when he started attending Mcnair Primary School .He showed great promise at first and gained admission to Beatty Secondary School after passing his Standard 6 examination, but after his father’s death, lost all interest in his studies. He left school prematurely without completing his Senior Cambridge Examination against Gloria’s advice and started hanging around coffee shops where juke boxes blared out the latest pop music and where there were frequent fights between rival gangs. After a few months she was relieved when he joined a four-man guitar band of Eurasians , performing at small family functions . She bought the guitar and sent him for a 3 month guitar course at Foorman’s School of Music . The band got a break when they were employed by the Singapura Hotel nightclub. Although this nightclub was a stone’s throw from home, Gloria disapproved his working there because of her fear that he would develop a penchant for liquor. She was all too familiar with what liquor did to some families when the man took to binge drinking. Although Justin had promised not to become a drinker, she had smelt liquor in his breath a few times when he returned from playing at functions. She had taken the other members of the band to task on this issue. Gloria had tried her level best to enroll him for a stenographers’ course at the Catholic Young Mens’ Association Secretarial School, but he had refused on the grounds that this was a ladies job.
On the next day, Gloria seated herself on an ornate wooden chair behind an equally ornate rosewood table with a sign plate, “INFORMATION” written in bold manuscript letters at the Kallang Aerodrome Terminal. The transit air passengers who dawdled in from the parked aero planes to the cafeteria at the passenger terminal for their meals could not easily miss the sign or the pleasant smile of Gloria. Kallang was a convenient stopover for the many weary passengers to stretch their legs, take a smoke or have a beer after spending many uncomfortable hours huddled within the Douglas Dakotas and Lockheed Constellations. The aerodrome boasted of a spacious passenger terminal with an impressive control tower with glass windows at the second level. It was reputed to house the latest air traffic control equipment. The terminal housed two cafeterias, a bar, a book –cum- stationery store and a souvenir shop in addition to the airline check-in counters.
There was also the Airport Hotel for those who broke their journeys for more than a day.
Many passengers, traveling between Britain and Australia broke the monotony of the flight by talking to Gloria, especially when they found her to be conversant in English. It was mainly small talk about how humid they found the weather or relief at being able to stretch their legs, but some stopped in to inquire whether there was a barbershop at the airport, and where they could purchase nylon stockings or Favre Leuba watches. She took great pride in answering these queries and extolling the virtues of the island. In fact, she felt that she did a better job than the Singapore Public Relations Office which promoted tourism in a half-hearted manner. She would advise the air travelers to take a break in Singapore and visit interesting places such as Change Alley at Collyer Quay, Satay Club near Alhambra Theatre and Haw Par Villa/ Tiger Balm Gardens at Pasir Panjang.
On that morning, she browsed the sports page for the progress of the Malayan badminton players who were preparing for the All-England Championships and the Thomas Cup competitions . She was an aficionado of the game having played many competitive matches at the Girls’ Sports Club in her younger days.
“Hello, Miss Question Mark”, a voice called out behind her.
She turned around to spot the balding lanky middle-aged man, looking smart in his khaki uniform. He carried a small gray cotton cloth sack in his hand.
“Gerard, what are you doing here? Your postmen collect the airmail- right?”
“I was in the postal van when we passed the aerodrome, so I thought I’d drop in to meet the celebrity.”
“ Oh, it was nothing,” Gloria gave him a smile.
“You really looked smashing in the newspaper photograph,” he said. Gloria blushed.
“Calamity Jane’s showing at Capitol Theatre. Shall I buy two tickets for the midnight show on Saturday?” the affable postmaster continued.
“Not this Saturday. The Barkers are having a christening ceremony for their grandchild”
“The invitation’s always open- just let me know when you can make it. “
“By the way, how is the reorganisation at the General Post Office going on?” asked Gloria.
“We are starting shift duty at night and this will speed up mail delivery all over the colony. Also no more fear of lost mail, even those from overseas, ” said Gerard.
He waved goodbye and disappeared with the sack into the postal van which had driven right up to the entrance. Gerard de Rozario, a widower had been importuning her to tie the wedding knot after her husband Ronald died.
“ We’re both without partners. I can provide you the companionship in your old age,” she always remembered his plaintive remarks.
Gloria was sure that she could come to like the good-looking mild-mannered man. He might even make a good step-father for Justin who had become difficult to manage. Outwardly, Gerard and Justin seemed to like each other’s company. On some evenings, both would go to watch the professional wrestling matches at the nearby Happy World Stadium. But things might turn out to be different if they had to stay under one roof. After all, Gerard had never raised any kids of his own. She intended to broach the subject with Justin one day. But nowadays, it had become so difficult for mother and son to have a long conversation that did not end in an argument. He had even stopped accompanying her to church on Sundays.
She did not need Gerard for the money but only for the companionship. She would reach the mandatory retirement age of fifty-five in a few years’ time. She could expect a respectable pension. This would be supplemented by the monthly payments from the Widows and Orphan’s fund, thanks to the regular contributions of her late husband. She could ask for an extension of service, but did not intend to. The airport would soon move to Paya Lebar because Kallang was unable to cope with the increase in air passengers. Her spacious terrace house where her family and Mother lived, and which Mother had willed to her after Gertrude left the family, was only a ten-minute bus ride from Kallang Aerodrome. Once in a while, she even strolled home along the tree-lined road for lunch with Justin. Paya Lebar was far away and the frequent bus employee strikes had made the bus services most unreliable.
Gloria attended the glittering New Year’s Eve Party with Justin at the Singapore Recreation Club, which was exclusively for Eurasians. She wore the special red gown bought from John Littles at Raffles Place. Gerard was to accompany them but could not because he had not fully recovered from a bout of food poisoning. The City Council was being taken to task for the red worms found in the water supply, which was suspected to have caused the recent spate of food poisonings. The master-of-ceremonies read out new-year greetings from those who had migrated and ended up by joking that the exodus will only accelerate because of the recent spate of food poisonings. He also mentioned that the party had special significance because SRC had defeated its rival the neighbouring, all –white club in soccer during the year. Looking around, Gloria could not help noticing the marked absence of many of her friends.
Gloria and Justin shared a table with the Boscos, Kenneth, Dixie and their teenage daughter Jennifer. Their son Brian was also down with food poisoning. Gloria saw the party as an opportunity to get the two teenagers Justin and Jennifer to get to know each other better. As it was, Justin was hardly moving around with Eurasians, but more with teenagers of other races. Not that she was bigoted in any way, but it would be nice if he found a partner of his own kind. When the master of ceremonies volunteered to teach the younger crowd on how to dance to Mambo Italiano, she prodded both of them to the dance floor . She sensed that they liked each other.
Everyone sang with the band in the lively rendition of the well-known “Jingkli nona” melody at the stroke of midnight heralding the year 1954 after “Auld Lang Syne” was played. The party ended well past midnight with the singing of “God save the Queen. ” While the older members belted out the anthem with gusto, Gloria noted that many of the younger crowd were muted.
The Boscos drove the Taskers home in their Baby Austin car.
“A bit of a squeeze,” Dixie giggled.
“We don’t mind. We shouldn’t wait until the next new year party to get together,” Gloria ventured.
“Gloria, you’re the first to know, but this’ll be our last New Year’s party here”, said Dixie.
“Why?” asked Gloria.
“We’re all leaving for Canada in about a month’s time”
“Looks like everyone’s leaving,” Gloria commented.
“ Governor John Nicoll has just announced a constitutional commisssion to accelerate self-government. The colony doesn’t have a future. The communists are already bin Malaya,” Kenneth said.
“Every day, the newspapers say that more and more bandits are surrendering in the Malayan jungles,” said Gloria.
“Do you really believe those stories? A Chinese University is being proposed somewhere in the west in Jurong. After self-government, what is the future of the English language? Where does that put us?” asked Kenneth.
Dixie continued, “There’s also another reason. Kenneth heard that the Governor’ll soon announce conscription for 18-year olds.”
“Is that so?” asked Justin, suddenly showing a keen interest in the conversation.
“Everyone between eighteen and twenty will be called up to serve in the military or civil defence”, Kenneth said.
“But why?” asked Justin.
“British conscripts are being sent here and it’s not popular in London. They need local conscripts,” Kenneth said.
“ I’ll be affected,” said Justin.
“Yes and my son Brian too,” said Dixie, “I don’t want my son to be sent to the Malayan jungles to fight the communist terrorists.”
“ I don’t want to fight the communists. I have no quarrels with them,” said Justin.
“Gloria, start making plans to leave,” said Dixie.
“Where to?” asked Gloria
“Your sister’s is in Australia. Get her to help.”
The words “I don’t want my son to be sent to fight the communists” reverberated in Gloria’s mind for the whole week. Justin was not the best of sons to manage since he left school. Many a time she had caught him smoking and reading the Weekender, which she considered as a trashy magazine with salacious articles. There were times when he drove her up the wall with his demand for money because he did not earn enough as a guitar band member. Maybe she was lax on him after the death of Ronald. She had every reason to pamper her son because he had cheerfully accepted all his deprivations when they were in Bahau. He did not deserve to ‘be sent to fight the communists.” He was all what she had, for better or for worse.
She mentioned in her next letter to Gertrude about Justin’s possibility of going to Australia.
The air letter arrived on Friday afternoon when she was having lunch. It was a pleasure to read the neat handwriting with every i dotted and every t crossed. Gertrude was still as meticulous as ever.
We were thrilled when we heard about your plans to get Justin to Australia . At once, we wrote to the Federal Department of Immigration for permission to bring in a relative. They have politely replied that settlement in the Commonwealth is only for persons of European origin. This is ridiculous but that is how things are. Look at me. I am only eligible to become a citizen after 15 years of stay because I am of mixed descent, whereas a white immigrant only needs two years. Those of us who speak English fit in much better here than the Southern Europeans who do not speak or intend to speak English. Yet, they are preferred merely because they are white. Peter says that things will change.
We would love to have Justin and also you to come over and settle in this wonderful country where life is much easier and where people are so helpful. Now that Mother is no more, what is there to hold both of you in Singapore?
Gloria, we will try very hard and look for other ways to get Justin here. Trust us. Peter and I will never forget your encouraging words when everybody was against us after our marriage. Peter is not one who gives up easily and he has some bigwigs among his friends.
Peter is away as usual supervising workers in the canefields. This year, the rains have been good and there is much work for cutting canes. Nowadays they are using tractors and this makes the work easy. He will be away for 3 months. He does miss all of us, but the pay is good, especially the overtime work.
With lots of love from Peter and me. Do not lose heart.
Gloria noted the irony of the situation. Gertrude was getting a dose of her own medicine, but she did not want gloat over it. The letter was very business-like and unlike the normal letters with gossip that the sisters wrote to each other. Gloria had not mentioned about the possible conscription for Justin as the reason to send him to Australia because it had been told to her in confidence. But she doubted whether it would have made any difference. She trusted her sister Gertrude to exhaust all possible means before giving up.
Gloria had discussed the matter with Justin before she had written to Gertrude. They had both sat down and talked about it, surprisingly without any arguments. Justin was not sure whether he could continue his studies in Brisbane. But if he forsook the opportunity to leave now, he might live to regret it. He could probably find a job there with the help of Uncle Peter, who he had never met before. Justin had suggested that Gloria could resign from her job and that both of them should get to Australia.
“Not at this time,” Gloria had told him, “ I don’t want the two of us scrounging off Gertrude. Maybe after you get a job, you can try to get me there. I would also have retired by then with a pension”
Now with this dolorous news from Gertrude, it did not matter any more. She sent a reply thanking Gertrude and Peter for their troubles and assuring them that all will be well with her and her son.
Two weeks later, she received another letter from Brisbane
I have some good news for you. Peter did not give up on you. The Department will give permission for Justin to come for a visit for a month. We have agreed to sponsor his stay with us. It took a lot of effort by Peter to get them to agree. He asked for 3 months, but they would only give one month and we could ask for an extension after that. Once he is here, things would be brighter. My Anglo-Indian neighbour managed to get his brother here for a visit and after repeated appeals, he has landed a job.
No promises, but things are looking better. We will collect the letter from the Department and post it to you. You should get it within the next two weeks. Start booking a berth for Justin to Brisbane and let us know the date of arrival. We are all looking forward to meeting him.
The rest in next
P.S. Please send a latest photograph of the handsome young man for us to recognize him. It has been ages since I last saw him.
After the initial joy, Gloria felt sad that Justin would leave her. The house would not be the same without him. It would be the first time that they would be separated. The thought that Justin was deprived of a happy childhood by the great war brought tears to her eyes. To make up for lost time, she remembered how she used to take him weekly to the 10 cents open air cinema shows at the school fields. It would end up with a bottle of strawberry milk that they used to share. His eyes used to widen at the appearance of Tarzan, the ape man. The memory of Justin hugging the small teddy bear that was given to him by Santa Claus at her office Christmas Party, after the end of the war made her weep uncontrollably. He deserved something better and she would not stand in his way. She was sure that Ronald would have taken the same decision if he were alive. If things worked out well for Justin, it might turn out to be a permanent separation. If he settled there, what would happen to her? If Australia did not even welcome a young man with part-European ancestry, why would they want a middle-aged lady past her prime? She managed to put aside all these feelings and started making arrangements with Justin for his voyage. After checking with the P&O Office on the ships bound for Australia, she persuaded Justin to write to his aunty Gertrude with a photograph and the details of his arrival.
Justin had to acquire a passport for travel and this took more than a week. With the passport and the expected fare, Gloria and Justin visited the P&O office in the afternoon to purchase the ticket to Brisbane on the “Chusan” which was sailing in two week’s time. During the bus journey, she kept up a conversation with him on how she should conduct himself when staying with Gertrude and Peter. She impressed on him the need to always have a place for Christ in his life. Justin was all apologetic about his giving Gloria incessant worries. He said that he was so proud to have shown Gloria’s photograph in the newspaper to all his friends. She could sense his excitement tinged with sadness and she was at a loss for words.
When Justin presented his passport and the letter from Gertrude, the ticketing clerk said that he could only issue the ticket when they brought the authorization letter from the Australian Department of Immigration.
“Sorry, Mrs Tasker. Without the letter, they might not let your son land and the shipping line will be blamed. I hope that you understand. You also have to buy a two-way ticket because they might ask for it. But I will reserve a seat for your son on the strength of this letter from his relative in Brisbane. I will not charge a reservation fee or ask for a deposit, ” the shipping clerk had said apologetically when she pointed out that he had issued the tickets to a European couple who were in front of her, without any question.
The unsuccessful venture had drained them of their energy and hope. They caught one of the shared taxis going towards the east. It drove into a traffic jam near the Kallang Gas Works, which was unusual for that time of day. The taxi inched its way for about 15 minutes.
“The bus driver’s strike,” the taxi driver cursed, “maybe they are marching and blocking the road.”,
Justin pointed to the horizon said, “Not a strike, there’s a fire.”
Gloria saw a column of smoke from the direction of the aerodrome. She was no stranger to seeing smoke because fires that razed on the atap huts of whole villages in the vicinity were quite common during the hot months, but not during the monsoon season with the heavy rains. In fact, the Estate and Fire Brigade of the City Council had recently announced that about 20,000 were risking their lives by living in kampongs that were a fire hazard. Was the aerodrome also on fire, she started to get worried.
When the taxi neared the junction of Mountbatten Road, after a further fifteen minutes, it was already dark and they could see the bright spots of light from vehicles and hear wails of sirens. There was acrid smell of smoke and burnt metal. There was a policeman in his short khaki pants and blue shirt turning vehicles away from the access road to the terminal building.
“What has happened?” Gloria asked him when the taxi stopped next to him
“Plane crash, no entry,” he said.
She alighted and asked Justin to carry on with the journey, but he did not want her to walk alone on the roads at night. She paid their fare and the duo proceeded towards the terminal building. The smell of burnt petrol was getting stronger and there were search lights all over the runway. She was accosted by another policeman.
“Sorry, nobody is allowed to get any closer,” he said
“But I work here,”
She searched unsuccessfully in her handbag for the identity card. All she had was Justin’s passport, but the policeman was not impressed.
“They might need my help, ” she said plaintively.
“The Director is expecting her, “Justin added
“Sorry. The aerodrome is closed,” the policeman repeated.
“How do I contact my office, if I cannot get enter?” Gloria asked.
The policeman just shrugged his shoulders.
Justin and Gloria trekked home on foot , which took about thirty minutes because they had to fight through a crowd of on-lookers that had gathered on both sides of the roads near the aerodrome. The din of the vehicles caught in the traffic jam blowing their horns was deafening.
At home, she switched on to Radio Malaya for any news on the fire. She had just missed the news. She would have to wait for another hour while the disk jockey was answering requests for songs. After warming up dinner, she prepared to go to the nearest public telephone to call her office. An announcement came over the radio
“We interrupt to announce that a BOAC Constellation plane en route from Sydney to London crashed during landing at Kallang Aerodrome this evening. The plane broke up into many pieces and caught fire. Rescue workers have so far recovered the charred bodies of 25 passengers. The rescue services comprising of the Fire Brigade and ambulances are being assisted by the RAF. Meanwhile Kallang Aerodrome has been closed and all flights diverted to Changi RAF airbase. The public are advised not to go to Kallang Aerodrome. They should check with the Airport office for news on diverted flights. All roads near the aerodrome are closed to help rescue operations. Some bus services have been diverted. We will update you when we have further news”
She decided to contact the office anyway and left home for the nearest public telephone booth. The first public telephone had no dialing tone. Some vandal had damaged it. She walked on bravely in the darkness for another 10 minutes to the next one, slotted in a 10 cents coin and dialed the Kallang Aerodrome number. All she got was an engaged tone for the next 10 minutes as she repeatedly tried to get information. She guessed that the switchboard should be flooded with calls from anxious relatives and with inquiries on other flights. There was nothing else she could do. She had tried to contact the aerodrome without success. If they needed her they would call. She decided to wait for the next day. That night, she included those who had died in the air crash in her prayers.
When she switched on to listen to Radio Malaya the next morning, there was no further update on the air crash, other than what was reported on the day before. Despite Justin’s insistence that she only report for duty when contacted, she decided to walk to the aerodrome with the necessary documents to try to get in and help. Just as she was leaving, a private bus pulled up with a message for her to report to Kallang Aerodrome. The bus had been chartered to pick up employees because bus services had curtailed their services to the Aerodrome. Everyone spoke in hushed tones on their way to the aerodrome. They were all brought up to the control tower.
The runway which was littered with pieces of debris and tyre marks was a sorry sight. The huge fuselage of the aero plane which had nosedived was blocking the runway. The fires had all died down and the firemen were picking through the ruins. She counted four large pieces of wreckage. The scene reminded her of the carnage after the Japanese bombing of the railway station, which she had witnessed. When the war ended 9 years earlier, she had prayed that she would not be a witness to such calamities any more.
The Director arrived at 9 am and read out a prepared statement to the press reporters who had had been herded into the adjacent Pilot’s Club Building, next to the control tower.
“This is the second bulletin on the air crash. Yesterday evening, a BOAC Lockheed Constellation Aero plane from Sydney-London landed short of the runway, hit a seawall, overturned and caught fire. 33 of the 40 passengers and crew have died. Their names will be released after the nearest-of-kin have been notified. The Chairman of BOAC is flying in from London to institute the board of inquiry. The aerodrome will be not be used while the runway is being cleared. All flights will be diverted to Changi RAF until further notice. However, the terminal will open in the afternoon for those who want to find out information. We at the aerodrome offer our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives. BOAC will make a press statement at 11 o’clock today. In the meantime, we will take you to the control tower from which you may take photos. We regret we are unable to let you take photos from the runway for your own safety. Please return to this building by 11 o’clock.”
Gloria stayed at the reception desk to answer inquiries from the public who would be allowed within the aerodrome in the afternoon. She would be assisted by two more clerks who would have information on missing relatives, delayed flights and alternative arrangements. Miss Question Mark was busier than usual on that day. The chartered bus sent her home late at night.
On the following day, she sifted the newspapers for more details on the crash. They were still full of headlines of the crash, but human stories were the main ones. Some of the identified charred bodies had been buried at Bidadari cemetery. A British passenger had been wrongly identified as an Indian businessman and cremated according to Hindu rights. Another businessman made a police report that a gold ring was missing from the finger of his wife who had perished, when he went to identify the body.
It was Justin who spotted the news in a small column.
“Look mom, there is some news about airmail being lost.”
Under the title Queen’s Mail Lost, it read – The Director of Posts announced that a fair quantity of civil mail might have been lost in the air crash. The postal department will sieve through and still deliver those that can be recovered. The lost mail is also suspected to include some from the Queen with mementos from her recent trip to Australia”
“Mom, what about that letter from Immigration Department from Aunt Gertrude?” Justin asked
“Yes, what about it? There are 2 flights from Sydney every week. It need not be with this flight.”
“It’s already two weeks since she wrote the last letter. The letter should have been here by now.”
“Let us wait and see” she said.
When she met Gerard later in the day, he confirmed their fears, that most of the civil mail had been destroyed. The post office could trace lost mail that had been registered in Australian post offices, but not those that had been merely mailed. Even that would take some time.
Gloria did not want to assume the worst. She was in two minds on whether to send a telegram to Gertrude. Against her better judgment, she posted another letter immediately to Gertrude about her fear that the authorization letter from the Department of Immigration might have been lost in the air crash. She importuned Peter to explain the circumstances to the Department to get them to issue a copy of the letter.
Mother and son spent six more anxious days and concluded that the authorization letter was indeed destroyed. The anxiety was heightened by the fact that there was no reply from Gertrude. Anyway, Gloria was too tied up with the recovery operations at the aerodrome to have free time on her hands to worry. She noticed that Justin was very jittery and morose. One day before the Chusan was to leave for Brisbane, she persuaded him to make another trip to the P&O office to postpone the date of his trip by another month.
Justin returned in a cheerful mood with two packets of Hainanese pork chops from Koek Road and a box of Angeline Orange tablets which Gloria took regularly in the belief that they improved her complexion. He said that the clerk had been very helpful with the change of date. In the evening, Gloria uttered grace before she and Justin sat down for their relaxing evening meal. As usual, they had switched on to Radio Malaya to catch any news of the air crash. By now, the air crash news had receded into the background.
Gloria heard this news on Radio Malaya evening bulletin.
“The Governor has announced the first call-up for all male British or Federal Subjects between the ages of 18 to 20. They will serve in the Singapore Military or Civil Defence. Details will be announced on the location of the call-up centres soon.”
Gloria sat up and strained to hear the rest of the news. She watched the colour draining from Justin’s face.
The bulletin went on to give the government’s reasons for the call-up.
Gloria lost her appetite when she heard the rest of the bulletin.
“The Labour Department announced that all affected males between these ages will not be allowed to leave the country without valid reasons. “
[All characters in the story other than historical figures are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]
Filed under: Short Story | Tags: 8.8.1988, English short stories from Asia, fiction around historical events, Kurlywee, Singapore fiction, Singapore short stories
The crazy notion of a “collection” all started when Chan Bong Soo dragged the unwilling Jason Teo to the “Hobbies Exhibition” at the World Trade Centre. The incongruous pair; the thin, tall wiry looking Bong Soo and the short fat balding Jason with a small paunch arrived just as the security guard started letting in visitors. The spacious exhibition hall with a long array of brightly lit fluorescent tubes was a welcome relief from the narrow corridors of the reception area at the securities firm, where Jason had spent the last week, investing recklessly in the stock market. Luck eluded him, but not to the others who had huddled with him when staring at the lifeless displays of stock prices on the television monitor. Jason did not have any dependents or a lavish lifestyle and could have been comfortable with the retirement savings from the Central Provident Fund, which he had placed in a fixed deposit account at the bank. However, after withdrawing a large portion of it prematurely, and dabbling in the stock market with ill-advised hunches from his friends , he was the poorer by the loss of about five thousand dollars over the past two months.
Jason only accompanied Bong Soo to kill time and keep his mind off his pecuniary losses. Bong Soo had said that they would pick up some ideas on “profitable hobbies”. That was so much like Bong Soo, who would put his nose wherever there was money to be made. Jason was indifferent to hobbies; all he could remember was collecting various types of sea shells as a schoolboy at St Patricks School behind the compound at the Siglap beach when the area had not been reclaimed yet. After a while, it became harder to find new types of shells and he gave up trying. He could not recollect what had happened to his modest collection.
There was a motley crowd of students and elderly people at the exhibition hall in the early morning. With the air-conditioning system working on full throttle. Jason regretted that he had not worn a full-sleeved shirt to keep off the chill. Bong Soo headed straight for the “Stamp and First-day covers” exhibition booths. Jason walked around aimlessly until he came to a booth with no visitors. This suited him because he did not particularly like crowds. One of the things, he most relished at his old job as the store clerk at Hiap Shing Vegetable Wholesale Company at Pasir Panjang was that it did not involve dealing with many people. Besides, the booth was set up in a far corner of the hall, which was spared the full assault of the air-conditioning system. The hobbyist at the booth who displayed many documents was busy cleaning his booth with a feather duster. On a closer examination of the exhibits, Jason espied that the hobbyist had a collection of stamps, newspaper reports, currency notes and photographs, none of which seemed to be striking.
Out of politeness, Jason struck up a conversation with the neatly dressed man, probably in his early seventies. The hobbyist stopped the dusting and said in impeccable English.
“ I collect memorabilia of important dates – 15th February 1942 on the Fall of Singapore, 1st January 1950 when Singapore became a city, 16th September 1963 when Malaysia was formed and 9th August 1965 when Singapore separated. These are stamps, medals, photographs and currencies of those dates.”
“Where did you get the banana notes?” Jason was curious. A memory stirred in him about the times his father used to exchange such notes in bundles to buy rice rations.
“This was the currency during the Japanese Occupation. My uncle kept them. Here is a copy of the Straits Times of 15th February 1942, which he also kept?” the hobbyist said proudly. “I intend to sell all these at a future date. They’ll bring in a tidy sum,” he continued.
That statement surprised Jason, who until then thought all the items on the display to be worthless. So Bong Soo was right, after all.
“Why do you wait so long?” asked Jason
“These become more valuable as time goes by. People become nostalgic and sentimental when they grow older,” the hobbyist said.
“ When will you sell them?”
“Are you interested?” the hobbyist asked.
“Oh, no. Just asking how long you should wait’”
“ About 15 years for things to acquire some value,” said the hobbyist.
“Why haven’t you sold the Japanese Occupation memorabilia yet?”
“ I’ll wait for 1992, which is the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.”
Jason left the booth after wishing the hobbyist success in his venture, to rejoin Bong Soo who was still engrossed in examining first-day covers. The pair took a cursory walk among the other booths, displaying various paraphernalia such as coins, matchbox labels, comics, key chains, playing cards, beer bottle caps and table coasters. After having a hasty lunch at the hawkers square, Bong Soo suggested that they pay a visit to Sentosa island by a cable car ride from the World Trade Centre. The very thought of being enclosed in the small cable car cabin sent shivers round Jason’s spine. Instead they had to settle for a ferry ride from Jardine Steps to Sentosa. They only returned at night, after viewing the thrilling musical fountain show.
The topic of hobbies and collections surfaced again on the following day when Jason visited at the coffee shop near his house at Joo Chiat, in the mid-morning. The usual coterie of retirees in their tee-shirts was already seated around a round table with speckled marble top and enjoying their morning coffee. The proprietor of the shop, still donning his striped pajama pants and sleeveless singlet darted in and out of the kitchen carrying cups of coffee in white saucers and plates of buttered kaya toast. Jason enjoyed this daily ritual of coffee and the playful banter with these friends. The discussion for the day had started with the cost of health care and whether their savings from pension funds would last if any of them lived to a ripe old age. Gopal, a retired civil servant opined that retirees should not just live on their savings, but do something to enhance it. Most agreed that putting the money in the bank to earn the paltry interest was not enough. A few had been fortunate in investing in collectibles such Afghan carpets, Chinese paintings and Indonesian artifacts. The value of these had appreciated over the years. Bong Soo, who was pouring his coffee on the saucer to cool it before drinking, said he had a stamp and coin collection, with some dating back to the period of the British Military Administration of 1945- 47, which he hoped to sell in the future for a handsome sum.
When the conversation turned to the vagaries of the stock market, Jason excused himself and left the group to return home. As usual, he had to meander around the obstacles on the five-footway of the shophouses. He pondered on his financial health. He was 58 years old now, what would happen if he lived to a ripe old age of 95? Yes, that was the age at which his father died. Would what was left of his savings last until then? His only income was the modest rent from the occupants of the first storey of his two storey shop house, the Chinese Medical Hall. He lived on the second storey. As a last resort, he could resort to selling the shop house, which his father had bequeathed to him and his elder sister, who had become a Buddhist nun and left for Taiwan. But where could he go to live after that? He could never live in the housing board flats. He would never get into the lifts, he was extremely claustrophobic. And at his age, he would tire himself if he had to use the stairs to climb more than two storeys. He shunned the idea of taking a job, his humdrum experience in his job had lasted 35 years and that was enough. Also with the usual bias against older workers, he did not expect to get a job at all. His immediate need was to recoup some of his losses at the stock market and at that moment, he could not think of any worthwhile pursuit.
After the usual afternoon nap and a quick shower, he headed for the Taoist temple at Mohamed Sultan Road . Born into a Teochew family, his mother had imbued him with knowledge of the myths in Taoism at a young age. He remembered being awed by the mention of the omnipotent Jade Emperor who knew all aspects of “dao”- the way. He used to marvel at the adventure of the immortals who took on many incredible adventures encountering dragons and demons and righting many wrongs. He accompanied his mother when she used to offer prayers, food and paper money to the dead during the Festival of Hungry Ghosts . He especially enjoyed burning joss papers at roadsides and watching the embers fade away, when he was a young boy. He had acquiesced to his mother’s final wishes and placed her photograph at the family ancestral altar at his home, next to his father’s photograph. The temple visits however, terminated after his mother’s passing more than 2 decades ago. Now when he was ending the final phase of his life, he felt that he should go back to his religious roots again. He had enrolled for a two month Mandarin course at the temple on how he should look after his spiritual needs. The temple course was already in its second month and the only advice he picked up from the venerable old monk was “There are two ways to be rich, one is to have more, and the other is to want less. Always choose to want less.” A good maxim, but difficult for man – Jason noted. The senior monk also advised that one should spend some time each day praying, contemplating nature, doing charity and meditating; all of which did not have a great appeal to Jason. How did he pick up a Christian name? His name on his birth certificate was Teo Chee Sung, which was conveniently changed to Jason Teo by his colleagues at the office. Jason did not mind that a little bit.
At the temple, Jason met his uncle Teo Ewe Jian and cousin Michael . There were there to enroll in a tai-chi-chuan class that a group of devotees was organising. They managed to persuade him to enroll so as to improve his physical well-being. Jason mentioned his encounter with the hobbyist and his intention to pursue a collection . It might bring him some much-needed income at the appropriate time, he quipped. Ewe Jian remarked that auspicious dates do not come too often. The dates 1.1.1991 where the number 1991 was a palindrome and 1.1.2000, the start of the new millennium were suggested as candidates. Jason would have to wait for 3 years to enter 1991 before he started pursuing his hobby. He did not relish the idea of waiting so long.
It was a week later that a particular number burst into the headlines, which gave him an opportunity to start his hobby “collection”. The number was 8888, an auspicious number to some Chinese Singaporeans who considered 8 as a very lucky number. There was talk of an auspicious date of the 8th day of the 8th month August 1988 which would soon appear as 8888. There was a flurry of excitement among a section of the population, which did not escape Jason’s notice. Other than the perfect symmetry, Jason did not see much merit in that number. His skepticism was reinforced when he read an article by a famous Chinese scholar in a Malaysian newspaper. This erudite gentleman stated that the Chinese culture had no tradition of numerology or study of numbers. He felt that the practice was a recent one started by money-minded businessmen to cash in on the ignorance of the public.
Punters were just waiting to buy their 4 digit numbers of 8888 at the gambling outlets. The betting organization fearing a sudden rush for numbers, announced that these numbers would only be on sale two days in advance of the 8th of August. They wanted to give everybody an equal chance of being able to buy the number. But they forewarned the public that when hot numbers were concerned they might put a limit to the sales.
The momentum for this magic number increased when many planned to have their wedding dinners or marriage registrations on that day. There was to be a mass wedding at Neptune Theatre where Taiwanese songstresses were scheduled to entertain the five hundred guests. The event was a sellout and many disappointed couples had to be turned away. Mount Elizabeth Hospital received more than 20 requests by pregnant mothers to induce labour on 8th August. This prompted an ethical debate on whether doctors should play God and interfere with the natural birth process. Five new buildings were to be officially opened on that day. Restaurants announced $8.88 meals for the day ; a shoe shop offered special $8,88 sneakers and sandals ;and furniture shops announced $88.88 and $888 bargains. Suddenly it appeared that a large segment of the population was enamoured by this number and excitement grew by the day. The newspapers joined in the frenzy.
Jason was convinced that this was a number that would be remembered. His first job was to get all the possible collectibles for 8.8.88. He spent many hours racking his brain and making a list of collectibles. He combed through all the newspapers since the beginning of August and cut out articles on advertisements and news items on 8.8.88 and pasted them neatly in a scrapbook. A newspaper advertisement for a new simple camera that stamped the dates on the photographs caught his attention; he had to have one to photograph and record the events of 8.8.88. He decided to postpone the purchase to the auspicious date because he would get that date recorded in his receipt.
There were five new buildings that would be officially opened on that auspicious date. He had to get an invitation card somehow. When he called a finance company , he was told politely that the invitations were only for those who had connection with them. He requested for blank invitation cards after the events were over. The receptionists could not comprehend the request but he was asked to phone a few days later to check on the availability of blank cards.
Two days before that date, he found himself in the queue at the betting outlet because they had started selling the 4 digit number 8888. The length of the queue was indescribable. It snaked its way past the shop into the road causing a minor traffic jam. After waiting in the queue for more than an hour, a counter clerk came out and announced that all the possible betting tickets for the number 8888 had been sold out. There were murmurs of anger and many in the crowd dispersed. Unlike others, Jason was not queuing up to buy a betting slip to win a prize. If the number was picked, he would be happy, but to him it was just another number that had only a chance as any other number to win a prize. For him, gambling at the stock market had a better chance of success than buying numbers for the weekly draws at the betting outlets. Now he had missed the opportunity to buy a betting slip with the number 8888 for the draw for that week. If the number did not win, he could still get an old ticket from someone. He decided to buy any non-prize winning ticket.
He approached an old gentleman who was one of the last to buy the ticket.
“Excuse me, would you sell me the ticket after the draw is over?”
The man asked, “What did you say?”
Jason went on to explain what he was looking for. The man laughed, he was sure that his ticket would win a prize in which case, the betting outlet would repossess the ticket. However, if it did not win a prize, he would be happy to post it to Jason’s address, which he took down.
The 8th of August was totally devoted to getting the collectibles. It was predicted to be a warm day; he dressed appropriately. After eating a breakfast of oats, toast, half-boiled eggs and coffee , he climbed into his 15 year old Toyota car. He hesitated for a moment, got out and decided to catch a bus to obtain a bus ticket with the auspicious date. After a short journey and disembarking from the bus at the neighbourhood centre, he bought copies of all the local newspapers in all languages from the news centre and deposited them into the carrier bag that he had brought with him. He exchanged the usual pleasantries in Teochew dialect with the proprietor, who expressed surprise at why Jason was buying Tamil newspapers, when he did not know the language.
The next stop was the shoe shop where he bought a pair of sandals which had been advertised for $8.88 and asked for the receipt. While he was discarding his old pair of slippers at the rubbish bin placed for that purpose, the salesgirl brought out a blotched up receipt, which he refused to accept. When the cashier refused to print out another copy, he asked to see the manager, who could not understand all the fuss about an ordinary receipt.
He proceeded to the camera shop, which was just opening its doors for the day. There he bought a camera and a roll of 36 films, with which he intended to shoot important events of the day and have the date of 8.8.88 stamped on them. He asked for separate receipts. The cashier was preoccupied with other things and she punched the figures on the same receipt. The only consolation was that 8.8.88 appeared on the receipt. The proprietor showed him how to use the camera and the first photo he took was of the camera shop.
It was too early for lunch but he could not pass up the chance of having an $8.88 western set lunch at Bali House Restaurant, which was two doors away from the camera shop. He sat down and ordered a meal of fish and chips. He toyed with the food because he was not hungry and left a large portion uneaten, so much so that the waitress asked whether there was anything wrong with the dish, before clearing the table. When it arrived, the bill showed an amount of $8.88 with a ten percent service charge and a one percent cess charge . This upset him no end, but he was in no mood to get into an argument again. He asked the waitress to take a photograph of him posing against the poster offering the lucky meal of the decade at $8.88.
The day was getting warmer and he was sweating profusely. He decided to return home and use his car for the next part of his hunt for collectibles.
After a refreshing shower and change of clothes, he drove to the Registry of Marriages at Fort Canning. He could not find an empty car parking lot along the access road to the building and decided to risk parking illegally on the main road. He walked along the upward inclined access road and entered the wide veranda of the building. Before doing so, he took a photograph of the Registry building to prove that he was there on the 8th.There was a large crowd assembled in the waiting hall adjacent to the marriage registration room. Jostling his way forward, he found himself next to a window of the room. The area was redolent with the smell of roses, which had been placed in large numbers in flower baskets.
Peeking in through the clear glass of the closed window, he noticed that the Registrar only allowed the couples and the witnesses in the registration room. Everybody else in the marriage party had to wait outside. That was the reason for the large crowd in the waiting hall outside the room. He had to take a photograph of the marriage ceremony surreptitiously without drawing attention to himself, but he could not take it through the glass window because of the reflection of the sunlight. He tried unsuccessfully to open the window. The best he could hope now was for a photograph of a couple walking away from the registration room.
He traced his steps back and took a vantage position at the veranda. As each couple came out flanked by the marriage party, he could not get near enough to get a good picture. One couple had a large entourage and he was squeezed against one of the columns of the veranda when they emerged. After that came a middle-aged couple accompanied by a small party. He positioned himself by leaning against the column and took a shot, hoping that he would not be noticed.
One among the group shouted at him.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Nothing, just taking a photo, ”replied Jason.
”Meng How, this must be your ex-wife’s doing,” shouted the bride.
“She just won’t leave us alone,” the groom lamented.
“Look here, whoever you are. Go away,” a tough came over to him and tried to grab the camera. Jason tried to pull away, he lost his balance and rolled down the grassy slope next to the veranda. Fortunately , the rolling down was checked by some overgrown bushes. He felt angry and frustrated.
“Serves him right, “shouted the bride as the party left. A crowd gathered round Jason, now lying next to a cluster of bushes. A kind lady helped him up and offered a bottle of mineral water. When the crowd dispersed Jason got up and picked up the camera which was lying beside him. The first thing he did was to ensure that the camera was not damaged and the film was intact. Then he checked his left arm, which he had used to break his fall. There were some scratches and bruises with slight bleeding, which he wiped with his handkerchief. Because of a dull pain in his left calf muscle, he had to hobble to his parked car .
There was a parking summons notice under his windshield wiper. It would cost him $20. Ill luck was following him around.He picked the summons up and was about to crumble and throw it away, when he noticed the dates 8.8.88 on the ticket staring at him. That was a lucky strike for him and he quickly inserted the ticket in his pocket..
At his next stop at the Mount Alvernia Hospital, he managed to find an empty parking lot at the underground car park. He headed for the restroom where he cleaned his wound on his left arm with warm water. He did not want it turn septic. The maternity ward was on the fourth storey. He was not going to get into one of those lifts, but this meant that he had to climb up four storeys. It was a daunting task but if he decided to leave now, he would miss his chance for ever. He was still experiencing some pain in his left calf muscle. After a slow hobbling climb up the stairs, he was panting and took a seat at the waiting room to catch his breath.
A kindly looking nurse asked, “Are you all right, sir? I noticed that you were limping. Have you some problems with your leg?”
”I am all right, thank you,” Jason replied and proceeded along the corridor to the maternity ward. He did not have to enter the ward because the babies’ room, aptly named “ Bundles of Joy” was along the corridor. All the baby cots were arranged in neat rows.
Whenever requested, the nurses brought out the baby cots with the baby to the large glass window of the room for the eager parents and relatives to gloat over. He overheard one of the bystanders saying that male babies were wrapped in blue cloth and female babies in pink cloth.
Jason needed a photograph, but did not want to risk the situation he had experienced at the Registry. First of all, he took a general photo of the view of the babies’ room . Then he closed in on the banner that hung at the back of the room with the message “Welcome to the world”. Just then the nurse brought out a cot with a baby wrapped in a pink cloth. Pretending to pan the camera to the side, he captured a hasty photograph of the baby.
Someone tapped on his shoulders, “What are you doing?”
“Just taking a photo of ward. Do you mind?” Jason asked.
“Why are you taking a photo of my baby? “the father demanded gruffly, “Why don’t you take photos of your own?”
“I don’t have a baby,” Jason said sheepishly.
“Are you a criminal?” the father asked.
“Nothing of that sort,” said Jason and explained what he was doing. The father was not convinced. In time, a crowd had gathered at the scene of the fracas, which invited a couple of security guards. They led Jason out despite his pleadings of innocence and asked him to keep away to prevent any incidents.
Jason pondered over the problems that he was having in collecting the memorabilia. It had been a frustrating day. The dull pain in his left calf had now given way to a throbbing pain. He could either call at Dr Vincent’s private clinic or go on to his next assignment. If he waited until evening, he could only see the doctor the next day, which meant sleeping overnight with the pain. If he went to the clinic, then this assignment may never be fulfilled. He decided that he could bear with the pain slightly longer. If it worsened, he would swallow a couple of Panadol tablets at night.
Jason’s next stop was at the 7 storey finance company building at Boon Keng Road that was to be declared officially opened. Many of the traffic lanes around the road had been cordoned off and he took the best part of half an hour to find a parking lot. It was threatening to drizzle and he took out his umbrella, which also served as a walking stick. He had not received an invitation and he did not intend to get in, but just to take photographs of what was going on outside. He joined the few stragglers who had been attracted by the sound of the Chinese melodies blaring out from a hi-fi set in the building. The first object that caught his eye was a large banner announcing the date of the opening of the building hung at the fourth storey level. In front of the main entrance were many flower bouquets and floral decorations on wooden stands sent by well-wishers. On closer inspection, the date 8.8.88 appeared on all of them to Jason’s delight. He snapped as many photos as possible, taking care not to get too close to the building and always checking the film counter to ensure that he had sufficient roll of film left in the camera. With such a bounty in sight, he regretted that he had not bought an extra roll of film.
Many important dignitaries were being dropped by chauffeurs at the front porch of the building . The men were all dressed in full suit and ladies in formal wear. As each entered the building, young ladies would greet them, pin large rosettes to their clothes and lead them to the lift lobby. Jason decided to take a couple of photos of the dignitaries. Nobody stopped him and he found himself in the media corner. Next to him were the television cameras and press photographers with their paraphernalia. All the pressmen had large lapels with the name “PRESS” pinned on their clothes.
When the beating of the gongs and drums started around five o’clock, everyone turned their head in that direction. The Lion dance troupe was gearing itself to welcome the guest of honour, whose Mercedes had just pulled in at the porch. Two prancing lions sprang from the two sides of the porch , energetically moving and shaking their heads, opening their large jaws and staring with their bulging eyes, to the accompaniment of the gongs and drums. The two dancers tucked inside the costumes forming the front legs and the back legs were barely visible. The two lions accompanied the guest of honour and led the way into the building, a perfect shot for Jason.
August is the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar and legend had it that the gates of hell are opened allowing unborn souls to wander the world for food and other necessities. Jason decided to leave the gathering and head for an open ground near his home where there was to be a Festival of Hungry Ghosts celebration. The neighbourhood Chinese clan had approached him for a donation and invited him to the dinner a few days before. There was to be a dinner in an open tent with entertainment by some singers followed by an auction of a wide range of items. He hoped to pick up an item which was in some way connected to the auspicious day and of course take some photographs. His last stop was to be at Restaurant 88 in the west coast, where he hoped to take a photograph. If he could get a seat he would also dine there before returning home.
A lady in a blue suit suddenly came around to the media area and announced in an officious tone, “Will the media people please follow me? I will take you up to the top storey for the opening ceremony”
At first, Jason let the others proceed, but he found himself being pushed along with the rest. He wanted to turn back, then he thought that it was worth the risk to get in to the building to take a few more photographs. The camera counter showed 27 and he could take 9 more photos. No one checked his credentials when he entered the building through the porch . On entry, another lady handed him a small black plastic toiletry bag puffed at both ends and narrowed at the center to look like a figure of eight, which pleased him tremendously. All visitors were led into the lift lobby.
“ We have reserved this lift for the media,” the lady said.
Jason wanted to turn back, but there was a rush by the media men to enter the lift and despite his protestations, he was pushed in.
“I want to get out. I am not from the press,” he shouted and thumped on the side of the lift.
It appeared that nobody would hear him amidst the din of the gongs and drums of the Lion dancers. The lift was packed with people. When the door closed, his heart started thumping hard and he broke into cold sweat. The lift moved for a few seconds, jerked and came to a sudden halt. The sweltering heat was unbearable, Jason felt the world turning around him..
When he opened his eyes, Jason was lying on a heavily padded reclining armchair in a spacious air-conditioned room with wood paneled walls and no windows. There were three other armchairs in the room. There was someone else sitting on one of the chairs, who had his face covered with a newspaper he was reading. Jason had developed a mild headache in addition to aches on his leg and arm. A glass showcase with a large number of trophies and plaques stood opposite where he was lying. The heavy wooden door with a black handle, next to the showcase was closed. On the wall to his right were some large Chinese paintings of horses in trot, in gallop and in grazing . On the wall to his left, he saw a framed picture of about a hundred uncut Bank of England notes with the Queen’s portrait. Next to it was a round wall clock with a white background with black numerals in the Chinese script. Although he could not decipher the numbers, the position of the hands of the clock showed the time to be a quarter to six.
He saw the reflection of a large painting behind him reflected on the glass pane of the showcase, but when he tried to turn his head, he felt a pain on his neck bone. His calf muscle was still throbbing. Someone had left his umbrella on the floor. The toiletry bag and camera lay next to it. He tried to remember what had happened and then surmised that he should be in a room of the finance company. Panic seized him because he had entered the premises without an invitation- he was a trespasser.
When he coughed politely, the man reading the newspaper put it down. It was Michael Teo, his cousin, who immediately went to his side.
“ Jason, I rushed here when I received a phone call that you were hurt in the lift. A doctor has examined you about five minutes ago. He thinks that you passed out because of the heat. We are to take you to the hospital if you have blurred vision or if you feel nauseous . If you want to go to the hospital, we can leave now.”
“It’s not necessary. My vision is fine. How long was I like this?” asked Jason
“About ten minutes since I arrived”
“How did they get your phone number?”
“ I don’t know,” said Jason.
“ I have a mild headache,” said Jason
Michael walked to the glass top table standing next to Jason’s armchair. There were a cup of Chinese tea, some Panadol tablets and a small bottle of Tiger oil. Michael removed a tablet and and gave it to Jason who sat up in the armchair to gulp it down with the warm Chinese tea.
” You should feel better in a few minutes. What actually happened? ” asked Michael going back to sit in his armchair.
“It’s a long story. I told you the other day that I was going around collecting mementos for 8.8.88. This building is being declared open today” Jason said.
“Were you invited?”
“I got into this place illegally with the press people, ”said Jason
“ That could be a problem. But why did you get into the lift? You are terrified of them.”
“ I was herded into it with the reporters I think the lift broke down and I fainted, ” Jason said, “I am a trespasser, what do we do?”
“ Leave quickly if you are sure you are not hurt, “said Michael standing up.
Just then, the door opened and the familiar lady in the blue suit entered.
“Mr Teo Chee Sung , how are you sir? My name is Priscilla Gan. I am in public relations. ”
She handed him her business card. Jason gasped for air and looked at it.
“We are sorry for what happened? We should have been more careful to prevent the rush into the lift. The lift stalled because it was overloaded. We are sorry about your nasty fall. Do you want me to call an ambulance?” she asked.
“No, it is all right,” Jjason said and wondered when she was going to bring up the subject of his trespassing.
“We found your umbrella and camera, but your media badge was probably lost in the rush. Your media colleagues have all gone for covering the opening ceremony and I did not know which of them to contact. So I had to open your wallet, where we found your identity card and Mr Michael Teo’s phone number. We telephoned him. The wallet’s back in your pocket, there are also some keys; we did not touch anything else ,” she said.
“I am Michael, Chee Sung’s cousin.”
Michael shook hands with Priscilla and they exchanged name cards.
“Oh, you are a lawyer,” remarked Priscilla. Michael smiled .
“ Look, Priscilla, I am not a reporter,” Jason said. He might as well admit and apologise for trespassing.
“You are the press photographer. Never mind, we have our own photographers covering the ceremony and we will make all the photos available to the press,” Priscilla said.
“I’m also not a …………….” Jason started.
Michael cut him short and asked Priscilla, “It’s a new building. Why was there no alarm if the lift was overloaded. Don’t you check the lifts before certifying them fit for use?”
” Of course, we do. It’s unfortunate this happened during the opening ceremony, especially on such an auspicious date.” said Priscilla.
“ It’s bad publicity, “ said Michael.
“ Yes, I hope that Mr Teo will not report this in the newspapers,” said Priscilla.
Michael cut in before Jason could reply, “ He is a forgiving man.”
“Thank you. The management is willing to settle this quietly………… perhaps, Mr Michael Teo could call me tomorrow.”
Michael nodded his head.
“ You have to excuse me. I have to go back to the reception to entertain the guests. You are most welcome to join us there. Otherwise, just close the door when you leave. If Mr Teo Chee Sung has to consult a doctor or take taxi home, please send us the receipt for reimbursement, ” she said.
Michael waited for her to leave the room.
Jason had to be helped out of his chair and he had to walk using the umbrella as a walking stick. Michael picked up the toiletry bag and the camera.
“You have a problem with your leg?” asked Michael.
“Not from here. I will tell you on our way home.”
Suddenly Michael laughed.
“What’s so funny about my leg injury?” Jason asked.
“Look behind you and then turn around.”
Jason looked back with difficulty and saw a beige coloured tapestry with cross-stitch pattern of eight persons standing on a cloud. It was neatly framed with a non-reflective glass to make it look like a painting. These were the portraits of the eight immortals of Taoist mythology in their full glory, crossing an ocean on their way to a new adventure.
Michael used the camera to snap a photograph of Jason standing next to the tapestry.
“One more for your collection- Jason and the eight immortals on the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighty-eighth year, “ said Michael.
“That’s enough adventure for today. We will leave now,” said Jason, “by the staircase.”