Short story collection


The Rainbow bar

Mr. Pinto wants to see everyone at his office half-an-hour before the club opens tomorrow morning,” Constance Lim, the petite office secretary wandered into the club pavilion dressed in a white blouse and black mini-skirt and announced officiously. A strong whiff of perfume had announced her presence to Samy, who had just reported for work at the bar counter at the club.

Samy just grunted a reply. He was busy searching for a spot to place his black leather shoes and white pair of socks to dry. They had to be dry before the Manager made his usual Sunday visit in the evening.   Mr. Pinto was a stickler for the proper dress code for his employees- white long sleeved shirt with black long pants and black shoes.  If Samy had known that he would have to wade ankle-deep through the water at the gate of the club , he would have worn slippers and carried the shoes with him. How was he to know that the early morning downpour would cause the ponding of water ? They should do something about the squatters of the nearby colony whose rubbish cluttered the  drains along the main road. Being a Sunday, he lay in bed longer than usual. He should have woken up earlier and arrived at the club before the rain fell. He even missed performing his daily morning yoga exercises.

Fortunately most members  would arrive  by car  and would not get their feet wet , like him. The sun was out and hopefully, the water would recede soon, even though there was a slight drizzle. Nevertheless, the water-stagnant drains would breed mosquitoes. Just to be safe, he should remember to light the  coils at the  pavilion in the evening to repel the nasty insects.

“ We just had the monthly meeting,” Harry Goh, who entered from the clubhouse to the pavilion  retorted.  The restaurant captain, sporting his white long sleeved shirt dotted with a black bow tie and starched black long pants with matching black shoes was holding a stack of menu cards.

Constance preened herself by parting her long hair with the fingers, “ I’m just passing the message. Don’t ask me, ask him.” She trotted off on her high-heeled black shoes to the main clubhouse.

“Not in a good mood, is she?” Samy said.

“I don’t know why I take so much trouble to put these menu cards on empty tables at the restaurant in the clubhouse,” Harry sighed.

“Head waiter’s habits, I suppose.”

“ She’s so snooty. I hope that she’s the first to go with the job cuts,” Harry said.

“I thought you fancied her.”

“Not after I came to know her. She’s waiting for some white guy to take her away to England,” Harry said.

“ Well, she hasn’t caught any yet.”

“She hasn’t much time left, has she?” said Harry. They both laughed.

“You think Pinto’s meeting is to tell us about the job cuts?” Samy asked.

“I don’t know. I’m already searching for another job. You better start looking around too”

Samy did not say anything. There were rumours about the club’s intentions to shed staff.

“ Can you recall what Saturday nights used to be at the restaurant. Yesterday, only five tables were opened, ten were empty” said Harry,seating himself on the sofa on the far corner of the pavilion.

Samy remembered that it was not long ago that he had to run around frantically trying to hire temporary help at the bar counter to serve the myriads of Saturday night patrons. Those good days were fast disappearing.

Harry stretched his legs, “I tell you what. This club is finished. Singapore’s  doomed – finished when the British servicemen return home . ”

“Pinto has been advertising for local members……”

“ You think locals will splurge like the servicemen? They order one plate of fried rice and a “Green Spot” drink. Not a plate of beef steak and mashed potatoes washed down with a few glasses of beer. Come to think of it, I should type new menu cards –Fried Rice, Char Kway Teow, Roti Perata, Green Spot, Red Lion, Ice Water,” said Harry.

Samy brushed aside the sardonic remarks,     “ We don’t want foreign forces here”

“You think we asked them to leave? Britain’s too poor to keep them here. We begged them to stay.”

“Still it’s a good thing for them to leave. We should shed our colonial mentality” Samy insisted.

“Really? Might as well shed jobs also.  Like me for instance. But I won’t wait that long,” Harry sprang up and disappeared from the pavilion into the main clubhouse. Why was Harry so unhappy with them leaving since he had benefited so much, Samy thought?  It was sheer hypocrisy. When it was Sgt Cronin’s turn to leave, Harry had managed to buy his  second-hand Volkswagen beetle at a cut-throat price, the same car that had won Cronin three bottles of whisky for cramming the largest number of passengers in the club contest.

Since the British Government’s announcements to pull out their armed forces from east of Suez in 1968, there has been a gradual whittling down of the number of servicemen. Samy recalled reading that about 20,000 locals made their living serving the servicemen. Harry, Pinto, Constance, him and the other employees of the club were all part of these statistics. The Admiralty Sports & Recreation  Club had an almost exclusive clientele of servicemen. Not that there was any discrimination against locals , but few had ventured to apply because the servicemen had treated the club as their own domain.

Behind the bar counter, Samy set about arranging the bar service for the day. He strained his ears to listen to the “Beatles” song over the pitter-patter of the rain on the pitched roof. On a normal Sunday mid-morning, there would have been many servicemen quaffing beer or sipping whisky on the rocks at the bar counter.  The club had fallen on hard times; sports and recreational activities had been curtailed. The tennis courts and the badminton courts were deserted. The judo instructor had changed his weekly classes to fortnightly classes. Even the children had disappeared from the ping pong table and the playground outside the club pavilion. The nearby “Kinema” which screened reruns of popular American or English movies for servicemen was to close within the next few months.  Not that he was affected, he preferred to visit Diamond or Royal Theatre in the city to watch Tamil or Hindi movies with his wife because he was a regular subscriber to the Indian Movie News magazine.  The many with the “big thirst” –the likes of  SAC Goodman, Sgt Rodford and WO Musgrove had all left. The few remaining health-conscious servicemen preferred using the gymnasium or the squash courts and they came to the bar only  for a glass of gunner or lime juice.

The few local members only hogged the room with the jackpot fruit machines.  The locals preferred gambling to drinking. The jackpot machines were the main draw for them to join the club. They did not even come to the bar counter to change coins for the jackpot machines because they could do so now at the games room. How long could the club afford to keep the bar open? It would be a pity to see the best-stocked bar in the area go bust.  Pinto had to negotiate with the breweries to extend the club’s credit terms.  The bar had stopped stocking different brands of beer.  Samy’s long term employment prospects looked dim.

He did not mind the lazing around because he felt lethargic after having eaten his usual heavy Indian  breakfast. He should watch the paunch that he was developing of late. It was not a paunch formed by beer drinking. There were enough beer bellies in the club. He had stuck to his father’s advice that a bartender should never drink because temptation was near at hand. His father, though only  a mandore in charge of the daily rated employees of the Public Works Department, had home-spun wisdom and brought up six children and seen them well settled in life.

Maybe he should go into the food catering business with his wife with whatever savings they had. Getting into the late thirties required him to plan for the future. A few times, he had obtained Pinto’s permission to sell his wife’s home-made samosas at the bar. The servicemen had lapped them up as soon as they arrived.  A catering business would give his family of three including his toddler son, a better income than the exiguous pay he received from the club since everyone had been forced to take a cut in pay. The wife had been  visiting the Hindu temple in Changi Village on Tuesdays for the regular evening prayers to seek blessings and better times for the family from Lord Rama. Maybe he should start joining her whenever he was free. The only problem was that the temple was quite far away from their home in Nee Soon and the bus services were not that reliable.

He picked up a copy of the “The Connoisseur’s Bar” monthly from the top of the large refrigerator behind the counter and started flipping the pages. How much longer could the club afford to subscribe to this wonderful  monthly magazine?

“I say, does that dog belong to the club?” a thin well-dressed man walking hurriedly approached the counter. He had a canvas bag slung over his shoulders.

“Uh, why? What happened?” Samy asked

The man pulled back the sleeves of his blue shirt and pointed to the back of his left palm. Samy took a cursory look and saw some traces of red marks on a pale white skin.

“It nipped me,” he said pointing to the brown dog which was lying under the ping-pong table and watching them intently.

“I’m sorry. It’s a tame dog,” Samy blurted out and immediately regretted saying so. He should have asked more questions before admitting anything to a stranger.

Stranger he was because Samy could not recognise his face; it was not one of the British servicemen who frequented the club. Perhaps, he was a visitor introduced by a member. But he did not recall any one signing the visitor’s register  at the pavilion for the day. Maybe he had been registered at the guestbook at the main clubhouse. Pinto would not have been happy to see visitors moving around without being accompanied by members, especially of late when there had been some cases of pilfering of ashtrays and table cloths. Club employees were empowered to ask unfamiliar faces about who they were with, but Samy felt that the awkward situation did not lend itself to such a course of action.

“That dog bit me. See the bite marks here.” The man extended his arms closer towards Samy. He examined the bite marks closely. There was no bleeding, but there were teeth-like marks.

“That dog has been here since it was a puppy. It hasn’t bitten anybody yet,” Samy said. He was not exactly sure of the veracity of the statement, but he was not going to be on the defensive.

“That’s all that I wanted to know,” said the man, his breath smelling heavily of stale smoke.

How should he interpret that statement? The man had established that the dog belonged to the club. Would he complain to Mr Pinto? This could mean trouble for him and the club.

“Are you going to complain?” Samy ventured to ask.

”You sure that the dog has been with the club all this while? Is it a stray dog?”

Samy moved his head from side to side, “Definitely not a stray dog. How did it happen?”

” Guess I should not have patted its head while it was asleep. If it’s not a stray dog, I need not get a rabies shot.” The man took a seat on the bar stool.

Samy was sanguine at this turn of events. After all, the man had admitted that he was   partly to blame for the incident. Serves him right for disturbing a sleeping dog. He said with a smile, “Yes, there is no need for that.”

The air of hostility had disappeared and the man seemed much friendlier.

“Do you keep any antiseptic cream and cotton wool?” the man asked.

“Of course. I’ll find some for you,” He searched for a key from the large key ring  with a bunch of half a dozen keys,that was hanging from his belt . He unlocked a cupboard on the side wall and brought out a small metal first-aid box which he handed to the man.

“You should tie up that dog,” the man muttered while he was cleaning his wound and applying the cream on it.  Samy said nothing. After all, the dog would not have bitten him if he had not patted it. There was a long silence and the man did not seem keen to carry on with the conversation.

“Can I fix you a drink?” Samy asked trying to break the ice.

“Maybe scotch on the rocks.” The man said, seating himself on one of the the tall stools at the bar counter and picking up an English newspaper tabloid from the adjacent newspaper rack. He rested the canvas bag on the bar counter. This riled Samy because the bag looked worn-out and dirty.  However, under the awkward circumstances, he decided to keep quiet.  He pushed the first aid box to the side of the counter.

Samy reached for a short glass among the tankards, goblets, long drink glasses and brandy balloon glasses from the elevated work top in front of the bar. He chose a key from his bunch to unlock a cabinet with a glass door beneath the counter to bring out a whisky bottle. From the ice bucket inside the freezer of the refrigerator , he used a scoop to get ice cubes into the glass before topping it up slightly below the rim with a generous amount of whisky. Holding the glass at the base, he placed it in front of the man.

“Good whisky” the man said, taking a sip.

“Black label – the drink’s on the house.” Samy wiped the rim of the bottle with a clean cloth, screwed on the lid tightly and locked the bottle away in the cabinet. He felt that he was justified in giving away this free drink. He did not consider it as an admission of guilt, but rather one of goodwill.

“Thanks. I was curious why you did not pour from the bottles over there,” the man pointed to the neatly stacked colourful array of liquids in bottles on the display shelf with a glass door behind the counter.

“ Hard liquor is kept in the cabinets beneath ,  beer and soft drinks in the fridge”

“Then what do you keep there?” asked the man

“What do the colours remind you of?” Samy asked.

“Nothing very much.”

“If you observe carefully, you’ll see that I have arranged the bottles to form the colours of the rainbow from left to right,” Samy said with pride. He pointed to each bottle in turn.

“ Cherry Brandy is red, Curaco orange, Benedictine yellow, Peppermint is green, Sambuca blue, Parfait Amour indigo and Opul Nera is violet.- the seven colours of the rainbow. They look especially colourful at night when I turn the spotlights on. The regulars call it the rainbow bar. I try not to disturb the arrangement.”

He had picked up these tips about bar decorations from the magazines. They came in handy to impress his customers.

“What are these fancy names for?” the man asked.

”They are liqueurs, usually drunk after dinner,” Samy was keen to show off his knowledge.

“Who drinks this stuff?” asked the man, swirling his glass around.

Samy pointed to the clubhouse,” The diners at the club’s restaurant. “

“You are quite an expert on this job, aren’t you?” said the man.

Samy was flattered. “I pick up ideas on the job and from magazines.”

“Why’s the bar not there, but out here in the open?” the man asked pointing to the restaurant.

“ We also have to serve the tennis and badminton players in sports gear,” Samy said. The main clubhouse did not admit members in sports gear. That was why the pavilion had been built with a wide lean-to-roof on a concrete plinth as an extension to the main clubhouse to house the bar. The pavilion stood out as an anomaly to the grand old colonial style villa that was the main clubhouse. The bar at the pavilion was a pale comparison of the elegant one that used to be located in the restaurant.  There were about a dozen bar stools along the counter. The drinks on display at the shelf were few; the rest were locked up in cabinets because of security concerns.

“Not very convenient, is it?” continued the man.

“No”

“And you cannot turn on the spotlights in the daytime because it’s so bright here,” said the man.

“Yes, but the mirror behind the bottles does bring out the colours of the rainbow,” Samy said with pride.

The conversation ended there . They both went back to reading, the man on the stool the tabloid and Samy standing at the counter his magazine, Indian Movie News published both in English and Tamil . In between the reading, Samy threw occasional glances at the man. He was well-shaven and the short sideburns had traces of grey. His skin was too sallow for a serviceman.  Samy guessed that he was in the mid-forties, probably one with a modest indoor job. He was definitely not of the British upper class; he did not know about liqueurs. The man was reticent.

A wad of paper sheets on the lower shelf of the counter caught Samy’s eyes. These were the “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign posters that he was asked to display at the bar. He unrolled one to reveal some amateurish drawings of how a housing estate would look like when the surroundings were clean. The posters came with the campaign messages in four languages. He did not want to clutter up the bar with irrelevant posters. But since Pinto was sure to notice their absence, he taped a solitary poster in English on the mirror behind the display. His patrons could surely read English and after all, his bar and the surroundings were the cleanest part of the club. His patrons were not guilty of littering other than flicking cigarette ash or throwing an occasional cigarette butt on the floor.

Campaigns after campaigns, when will the government get tired of them? They petered out in enthusiasm after the first few days, but this campaign would be different. The Prime Minister himself was involved.

His thoughts turned to the dog when it rose from under the ping pong table. The man also turned his head to glance at it.

“Can you tie up that dog?” he asked.

“ It is harmless,” said Samy. Why could the man not leave the dog alone?

The man stood up and stared intently at the dog which let out a low growl.

“See,” he said.

Samy finally decided that he had to do something about the dog. He did not believe that the mongrel could bite although it certainly caused annoyance by its barking.  But why take a risk by letting it loose when visitors were around in the club? He did not want to be caught in the awkward situation again. Most clubs did not allow dogs unless they were on leash, but this was the club’s caretaker’s dog. The service men were in the habit of feeding it with tit bits. The caretaker only came in at night, usually in an inebriated state. It was common knowledge that he slept through the night and relied on the dog to keep watch.

He recalled seeing a dog leash in the store room.  If he left the bar counter, there would be nobody to attend to the patrons. He peeked into the jackpot machine room to see if he could get the games attendant to tie up the dog, but changed his mind when he spotted a long queue waiting to change coins.

What should he do? Could he leave the bar counter unattended for a short while? There would hardly be any patrons ; but would someone filch the drinks? Well, not in broad daylight, he surmised.

“ I’ll need to tie up the dog on a leash. I’ll be gone for a while. If anybody comes to the counter, please ask them to wait for some time”, Samy said. The man who had sat down on the stool again, took his eyes off the tabloid for a moment, grunted and went back to reading.

With the dog wagging its tail in his tow, Samy walked barefoot across from the pavilion to the store room, the bunch of keys on his waist making clanging noises. On unlocking the door with a  key from his bunch, he was aghast to find the floor strewn with old cyclostyled club newsletters, staplers, used staples, paper clips, pins, rubber bands, used envelopes  and old receipt books. The dog started sniffing around the room. Pinto must be arranging the office cleaning to prepare for the “cleanest club contest” that the Health Ministry was organising. This was fine way to hide the mess from the judges’ eyes! He felt annoyed that they left much of the store in this untidy condition. He had to tread softly in order to avoid sharp staples and pins on the floor.  It took him a while to find the dog leash.

The dog did not take kindly to Samy trying to hook the leash on to its collar. He took some time to coax it to approach him and remain still. Leashing the dog took the better part of fifteen minutes. It was a harrowing experience for him.  Samy returned to the pavilion with the dog on the leash after locking the store room,  with the intention of hooking the other end of the leash onto a slender column.

The bar counter was deserted except for an empty whisky glass . The man was nowhere to be seen . The bottles of the rainbow display were gone. Samy could not see the main road through the chain link fence which was overgrown with creepers. He had to stop the man if he could. He hurried bare footed to the gate with dog. The water ponding around the gate of the club had receded, but the ground was muddy. He had to stop to roll up his black pants to avoid getting them smeared with mud. The dog took this opportunity to break loose and to run back to the pavilion, dragging the leash along.

Seated on the  bus shelter on Canberra Road were two boys , who looked in his direction on hearing the din from the bunch of keys. He looked at both directions of the straight road, but there was no trace of his man. As he approached the boys, they rose from their seats and hurried away. When he smelt cigarette smoke, he understood the reason.   He saw no point pursuing the boys; he did not believe they were involved in any way.

He returned to the bar counter at the pavilion after wiping his feet on the rug at the entrance.  The dog had gone back to lie under the ping pong table; there was a trail of muddy paw marks on the floor that he would have to clean later. The cleaning lady did not come on Sundays.

He inspected the damage at the bar counter with trepidation. The latch of the glass door at the display shelf had been unhooked and all bottles within the shelf stolen. The cashier’s till had not been touched, which was a relief to him. None of the cabinets with the hard liquors located beneath the counter had been tampered with. Looking into the fully stocked refrigerator through its glass door, he noticed that one pack with six cans of beer was missing.

Samy felt silly that he had fallen for the ruse. The dog had been a convenient excuse, but he did not want to blame the dumb animal. The man must have known about the thin crowds at the club on Sunday mornings. He counted the cost to himself and the club- all they had lost was a first-aid box and six cans of beer. It could have been much worse. In his heart, he recited a prayer thanking Lord Rama for being merciful to him.

He had taken note of a recent letter from a bartender in the “Connoisseur’s Bar” that liqueur deteriorates even in unopened bottles if left out in the open. Samy could not leave liqueurs out in the open pavilion and so kept them in a separate cabinet. Instead, he had improvised a bar display with coloured water in used liqueur bottles of well-known brands to imitate the rainbow effect. The man had only carried off seven bottles filled with water. The joke was on the man, Samy grinned.

Samy had to start his collection of used liqueur bottles again. On second thought, he resolved to make that decision only after the next day’s meeting with Pinto. He had not much time to mull over it because small groups of members had started arriving for lunch.

[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]

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To none will we delay justice

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The price of friendship


“You ever cheated during your exams?

“ Why?” Gabriel Koh was taken aback by that query.

“Just asking? Ever cheat?” repeated Damien Li.

Gabriel, seated opposite Damien was reluctant to answer. Did Damien get him alone in this solitary Sentosa cable car cabin to ask such a question? Normally, the undergraduate would have been cruising home to Kota Tinggi, in a shared taxi to an uneventful weekend with his parents and siblings. For this Sunday, he was glad that Damien had coaxed him to visit Fort Siloso in Sentosa to do research for their joint final year project. The University had just changed its name to the National University of Singapore and the new syllabus had a greater emphasis on South-east Asia. Damien always seemed to know the correct thing to do; Gabriel was content to be the junior partner. Besides, Gabriel did not look forward to the weekend reunions at home any more- there was so much acrimony.

“What type of question’s that? Gabriel demanded.

“You haven’t answered.”

“And if I did ? What would you do?” Gabriel asked, twiddling his thumbs.

“Nothing.”

“Are you sure,” asked Gabriel.

Damien nodded. Gabriel leaning forward, smiled and gave a playful push on Damien’s broad shoulder. Damien’s well-built frame with a fair complexion and his vivacious nature earned him the friendship of both sexes so easily. He was the goal keeper of the University’s hockey team and hence very fit. To top it all, he always dressed well; even for this field excursion, he had donned a dark blue Polo tee shirt , a pair of light blue Levi jeans and white suede shoes. Next to him, Gabriel cut an unflattering picture with a white Tee shirt and a pair of denim shorts- he dressed for comfort, not for style.  Damien was one of the last big spenders on the campus , which attracted many friends. Being already on a shoe-string budget, Gabriel could only envy Damien’s affluent lifestyle, especially now that sister, Mei Ling had left Robert Gan.

“I get Mei Ling married into a rich family.  She abandons them after two years to come back and teach in the village school,” Gabriel’s father had griped when Gabriel spent the last Chinese New Year with his family .

“When Robert throws out his mistress, I will return,” Mei Ling would counter.

“What does it matter? He looks after you, sends money to us each month.”

Gabriel came from a conservative Baba family that had its roots in Malacca. The babas were Chinese who used Malay as their language but adopted many Chinese customs

”So you will sell me as his concubine,” Mei Ling would retort.

“Give Robert a son. If you are here, how will you do that?”

The polemic went on through the entire festive season at home in Kota Tinggi.

The overhead cable car started its motion from the Mount Faber station with a sudden jerk. Gabriel held on to the steel railings next to the cushioned seats to steady himself. He was thankful that they had the four-seater cabin all to themselves. At least, he could stretch his long legs, which were always a problem on the seats on buses.

“Ever cheated?” Damien persisted.

“Why should I reveal such things?”

“Why not? We know each other well,” Damien said.

“Certain matters are very private.”

“So you do cheat, right?”

“Maybe I do cheat a little,” Gabriel’s voice was inaudible, “like all of us do.”

Everyone cheats once in a while. Had not even the respected senior lecturer in the History Department been taken to task for inflating his transport allowance claims?

“How?” asked Damien leaning forward.

Gabriel hesitated for a moment ,

“I used to scratch formulae on my plastic ruler for the exams……”

“Is that all?” Damien sounded unimpressed.

The next few words blurted almost unconsciously out of Gabriel’s mouth, “During the practical chemistry exam, we shouted out the answers when the teacher was not nearby ……..”

“Ever get caught?”

“Yes, once. The teacher kicked me out of the exam hall. I got a whacking from my father,” said Gabriel, emulating the action by slapping the back of his black denim shorts.

“How did it feel?” There was anticipation in Damien’s voice.

“I hated my teacher for telling …….”

“No, I mean how does it feel to cheat?” Damien asked.

“A lot of tension. I didn’t feel so great,” said Gabriel, gazing out of the glass window at the approaching cable cars,” Hey, we have already passed four cars returning.”

“You feel guilty?” Damien continued.

“ Why ask all these questions?” Gabriel stroked his receding hairline; the men in his family seemed to bald early.

“I wonder what it’ll feel like to cheat like you do,” Damien scratched his chin.

Gabriel waved to a couple of giggling girls seated in a cable car that passed them. They just rolled their eyes.

“You don’t need to cheat. You get good marks at exams,” Gabriel said.

“I spot the right questions,” Damien said.

Gabriel wished he could be that fortunate. He was sedulous in his studies, but all his life he had to struggle to cope up. He had to put in much more effort than his classmates, just to keep even. Only on the second attempt had he managed admission into university; and that only because a few who had been given places did not take them up. By that time, father had retired. Fortunately, brother-in-law Robert Gan pledged to sponsor his university education. Now even that pledge was in jeopardy.

“You’ve had it made. You’ll take over your father’s medicine shops,” Gabriel said while fiddling with the buckles on the haversack.

“The old man has other ideas. He thinks that I’m irresponsible. He has me and my brothers watched like a hawk.”

“You shouldn’t call your father such disrespectful names!” Gabriel was flabbergasted. He would never say such ungrateful things about his father.

“Why not?” asked Damien,” Pa believes in a lot of Cantonese hocus-pocus, such as a fortune can’t last in a family for three generations. Grandpa came from Kwangtung and made a fortune by selling herbs to illiterate immigrants  and pa opened up a string of shops selling placebos. Pa thinks that I’ll fritter it all away.”

The conversation was getting awkward and the temperature was getting hotter. Gabriel looked down and turned his attention to the vehicles on Telok Blangah Road and the neatly moored container ships at the wharves, which came into view. The crane operators were continuously loading and unloading the uniformly shaped steel boxes of various colours on to ships.

“Everyone cheats- you, my grandpa and my pa,” said Damien.

“Why don’t we change the subject?” asked Gabriel without taking his eyes off the tiny ships that were gliding under the cable car.  He was angry.

“Do you want to know a secret?” Damien raised his voice.

“Sounds like a Beatles number,” Gabriel laughed, “Want to tell me how you spot questions?”

“No, not that. I also cheat.”

Gabriel moved his forefinger along the bridge of his nose to push his sunglasses towards his head,” You don’t say!”

“I’m telling you that I also cheat,” said Damien.

“That’s why you get such good marks?”

“No, not your type of cheating. I sell cheap cigarettes at the hostel, ”Damien uttered each of the last words slowly.

“What?” Gabriel’s mouth dropped. He did not smoke, so there was no way of him knowing about cheap cigarettes, he always thought cigarettes were expensive.

“I sell smuggled duty-free cigarettes,” Damien stressed each word.

“That’s a crime, more than cheating”

“No, just cheating the government. The money’s good and no chance of getting caught,” Damien grinned at him and fidgeted with the buckle on his belt.

“I don’t believe you,” Gabriel said. Damien hardly looked his mental picture of a common smuggler.

“I put my talents to good use,” Damien clasped his palms together.

The cable car cabin slowed down when it reached the halfway mark between the two tall towers. Gabriel spotted an oil rig gliding on the deep blue sea towards his cabin.

“Not a very comfortable feeling,” muttered Gabriel, looking down nervously.

“What?”

“The rig’s mast is too high,” Gabriel repeated.

“Oh that? After a while, when the money starts rolling in, it’s very comfortable,” Damien continued his conversation, oblivious to Gabriel’s concerns.

“Why do they allow such high rafts to move around here?” asked Gabriel.

“Oh, they know what they’re doing. Let’s get back to cheating.”

“No. Let’s talk about Fort Siloso,” Gabriel pleaded.

“Why? Feeling guilty about cheating?” Damien asked…

“When did you start smuggling?”

“When my old man started restricting my monthly allowances,” Damien cursed under his breath.

“Why do you need so much money?” Gabriel asked.

” I have expensive tastes. I am what you call a sybarite. “

Gabriel knew the meaning of that word- it meant a lover of luxury. Gabriel was  fortunate to have been invited once to Damien’s opulent home at Queen Astrid Park. Each time, Damien invited his friends to dinner, it was at a fancy restaurant and he left very fat tips to the waitresses who served them. Damien brought his own furniture and carpets for his room at the university hostel. It was a favourite meeting place for some of the hangers-on. Every evening he would drive around the campus in his sports car.

“Look at the rain clouds. At least, it will be cooler soon. How do we get to Fort Siloso from the station?” Gabriel asked looking into the horizon.
“There’s a new monorail…… Don’t you want to be rich?”

“Yes, but with a salaried job that I’ll end up with………very unlikely?” said Gabriel mopping sweat off his eyebrows with a handkerchief.

“But there are other ways.”

”Like?” asked Gabriel expectantly.

“You tell me.”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t ask you, would I?”

“Turn dishonest.”

Gabriel went quiet for a while, “I’m not cut out for that.”

“Well, you cheat at exams”, said Damien.

”Now look here, that’s nothing”, protested Gabriel, “I should have kept my big mouth shut.”

“It’s only a matter of degree. You’re already dishonest,” Damien insisted.

“So are you,” Gabriel retorted angrily. This conversation was getting out of hand. It hurt Gabriel to talk about his cheating.

“So you don’t want to be rich?”

“We should be reaching Fort Siloso by twelve noon and then……,” said Gabriel, hoping to change the subject.

“You want to be a salaried man eking out a meagre living,” Damien interrupted rudely.

“Let’s talk about what we’ll do at Fort Siloso”, said Gabriel.

“I have a proposition for you.”

”A dishonest one?” Gabriel asked with sarcasm.

“Yes, only as dishonest at cheating at exams. Interested?”

Gabriel felt a hot flush rising to his face, “No”

”Hear me out.”

“What do you take me for? A thief?” asked Gabriel.

“You go to Kota Tinggi quite often, don’t you?” asked Damien.

“Yes, weekly.”

“Each time you return across the causeway, bring in 20 cartons of duty-free cigarettes,” said Damien

“Smuggling? Leave me out.”

“I call it smart business. You need a good strategy,” said Damien.

“What strategy do you need to smuggle?”

” You are a member of the university chess team, are you not?” asked Damien.

“Yes,” Gabriel was proud of this fact. On the chess board, he was a force to reckon with.

“Don’t you use strategy to cover all angles so as not to lose?”

“Yes,” said Gabriel.

“Similarly I use strategy to ensure my success at smuggling.”

“Now I understand why all those questions,” said Gabriel sitting down and holding tightly to the rim of his seat. How did Damien have the audacity to suggest such a thing to him? He must have been misled by his admission of cheating at exams.

“You’ll be paid a handsome commission. “

Probably a pittance for such small smugglers like him who took all the risk, while the likes of Damien who ran the ring raked in all the profits.

“Let’s say for argument’s sake, I get caught. What would I say?” Gabriel asked.

“No chance at all,” Damien assured him, ”Are you interested?”

”Definitely not.”

“I should have known. You don’t have the guts to do something daring- you can never hope to be rich,” said Damien.

“Definitely not through crime.”

“I’m only offering this easy way to make money to very trusted friends,” said Damien,” Maybe, you can start with a something smaller and see how it feels before getting on to smuggling,”.

“Such as?”

“OK. I won’t be going to Fort Siloso” said Damien

“What? We came to do the project together. Where are you going in Sentosa?” asked Gabriel.

“Not in Sentosa. I’m returning to the mainland,” said Damien.

“You want me to do the project and say that both of us did it. Is that it?”

”No, silly. Something more than that. My plan requires you to be here.  If my pa ever asks, I want you to say that I was with you all the time and we returned to the mainland together,” said Damien.

“You want an alibi,” said Gabriel

“That’s the word,” Damien smiled.

“Why do you want to lie to your father?”

“I’m going for a poker session. In case my pa finds out, I need an alibi”

“I don’t want to lie and get into trouble,” said Gabriel emphatically.

” I’m not going to rob or kill anyone, only gamble” replied Damien

“First you ask me to smuggle cigarettes for you. Now you ask me to lie for you. I’m confused,” said Gabriel

“It’s the first step. If you can’t even do such a simple thing, I can’t recruit you in my business,’” said Damien

“I’m not interested in your smuggling ring.”

“It’s five hundred dollars each time. You can quit when you want”, said Damien

Five hundred dollars each time!!! Gabriel would be permanently free of monetary worries, but how will he explain to his father where the money was coming from?

“Still not interested,” said Gabriel.

“Don’t you want to think about it? It’ll set you up for life by the time you leave the varsity.”

“I’ll need forever to think about it, ” said Gabriel after a long silence. It was always good not to seem overly keen

“One thing- the offer only stands if you be my alibi today.”

”The two are not connected,” Gabriel said.

“They are. I have to test your nerves and your ability to tell a lie convincingly,” Damien said.

”Why?”

“Let’s say the customs officer asks whether you have any cigarettes and you can’t lie convincingly- you are useless to me.”

“But I thought you said that there was no chance of getting caught,” countered Gabriel.

“Yes, but we have to be prepared for contingencies, don’t we?” Damien smiled.

Gabriel had been travelling almost weekly to Kota Tinggi and back. More often than not, nobody was around to check anything. Once or twice, he had seen some officers walking with dogs which were sniffing out drugs. He had not heard of dogs sniffing out cigarettes. Maybe he should not reject the offer outright.

“Repeat what you want me to do today?” Gabriel asked.

” I was with you at Fort Siloso and we returned together, in case anybody asks.”

“Doing anything illegal?”

”Gambling in a private house is not illegal,” said Damien.

“Where?”

” You need not know where.”

“I’m agreeing only because you’re my friend and you have given your word that you won’t do anything illegal,” said Gabriel. He did not want to give the impression that he was doing it for any other purpose.

” I take it that you are also interested in my offer”

“It’s not automatic. I said I’ll think about it,” Gabriel said. He did not want to pass up the opportunity.

”Don’t take too long. Time’s money,” Gabriel noticed a triumphant smile on Damien’s face.

The cable car slowed down on reaching the Sentosa terminal, where a stout man in a blue uniform unlatched the cabin door from the outside to let them out. Without a word, Damien sprang out and skipped over to the opposite platform to the ticket office.

“Hey wait, your carrier bag’s here,” shouted Gabriel, but the cable cars had already started moving in the opposite direction.

Not even a word of thanks for the favour from Damien.  Gabriel was hurt. Maybe he was too hasty to have let Damien persuade him to lie.

At the station, Gabriel transferred to the monorail, after strapping the haversack on his back. He peeked into Damien’s bag. It contained a bottle of mineral water and a torn page of a street directory. Damien had obviously come ill-prepared for the trip. Whoever would have thought that Damien was involved in smuggling? He placed the bag into his haversack.

The cool breeze provided some welcome relief as the monorail trudged on towards Fort Siloso , the sole surviving coastal gun battery from the twelve such batteries which made up ‘Fortress Singapore’ at the start of World War Two. It was fashionable to build such underground forts in the late 1870’s because the earthen emplacements were good defence against both solid shot and explosive shell. The stores, magazines and generator rooms, which were underground offered excellent protection from enemy fire. Gabriel was very impressed with the neatly laid-out internal arrangements . The British built Fort Siloso to resist any foreign attack from the south of Singapore. With all these forts and sufficient soldiers, he could not understand why the British had capitulated to the Japanese without a fight. At the recent Falklands War , Britain had shown its prowess probably only because of a much weaker Argentina as compared with Imperial Japan. At the underground barracks, he spent time inspecting each item.

Intending to take down notes, he picked up his ball-point pen from his shirt pocket and was instantly reminded of the dwindling amount in his bank account. The expensive ballpoint was the gift he had received from the bank when he opened the account with money from Robert Gan. He was still on good terms with his brother-in-law, but whether Robert would continue to finance his education remained to be seen. He did not see how his father could help him from the exiguous pension that he received. Damien had offered him a way out, but was he bold enough to agree?

In between, when it got too hot inside, he stopped intermittently to emerge into the open area to watch the waves lashing on to the rocks on the beach, while munching on the sandwiches and sipping lemonade.

At five o’clock Gabriel returned to the cable car towers in the light drizzle. He had time to cogitate on Damien’s offer. He was flattered that Damien had confided in him. He would not be pushed into agreeing to smuggle, but would not refuse outright.  He had to find out all the details. He might even do a trial run before considering the offer.

A long queue indicated a long wait ahead to get home. On closer examination, he spotted that many were not queuing up, but taking shelter from the rain. While waiting, he wondered whether Damien was still in the midst of his gambling session. He felt a nagging fear that Damien’s father might question his alibi. He felt his palms going sweaty. He picked up a publicity brochure on the Butterfly Park, which he had not the time to visit.

The cable cars glided past one by one and the waiting queue advanced.

Out of nowhere, a loud twang diverted his attention to the large cables. They were swinging violently in both directions. The tower shuddered amidst loud shrieks. The waiting passengers were pointing to the cable cars. To his horror, he noticed that the cables were entangled around a high mast of an oil drill vessel. Two cable cars that were bobbing up and down on the cables hung precariously in mid-air. He could not avoid looking below to the sea. Boats were rushing to two small bubbles which were drifting with the waves. The tragedy had all happened in a flash. The great wheels of the crankshaft of the cable cars had stopped. One elderly woman in the queue went into hysteria and had to be calmed down by a teenager. There was commotion and some ran out into the rain. For a few minutes, everyone waited not knowing what to do until an announcement came over the public address system

“Ladies and gentleman. The cable car service and the terminal are closed until further notice. Please leave the terminal in an orderly manner and go to the monorail station. The monorail will take you to the ferry terminal. You can use the cable car tickets to board the ferry to Jardine Steps and Singapore. Please be patient. There is no need for any alarm. We apologise for the inconvenience”

A group of officials in blue uniforms came in to the terminal to clear it of passengers, many of whom were witnessing the rescue operations in the sea.

The tragedy filled Gabriel with pathos. He prayed that the poor souls in the fallen cable cars and those stranded on the cables would be rescued. He shuddered to think that if he had been ahead in the queue, he could have been the victim. A queue had already formed outside the monorail station. Despite the slight drizzle, many had decided to walk to the ferry terminal rather than wait in the queue. Gabriel was stuck in the terminal for the better part of half an hour. Then, the crowd started moving down the stairs in orderly but slow manner. Suddenly, a young lady, dressed smartly in a three piece suit and who was walking next to him, tripped on her high heel shoes and lost her balance. Gabriel caught her just as she was falling sideways. He could get a strong whiff of her perfume.

“Are you all right,” Gabriel asked with concern.

“Yes, thank you,” she replied as he let go of her arm. He stooped down to retrieve her shoe that had caused the accident

The incident had caused a minor obstruction on the exit .Out of nowhere, a young man wearing a T-shirt with the words “I love Singapore” blocked their way. He pushed a microphone under the chin of the young lady, before she could compose herself.

“Miss, did you see the accident?”

“Yes,” she answered and suddenly the television camera spotlight was on both her and Gabriel.

“What did you see?” the young man, obviously a reporter asked.

“The cables started shaking violently. Two cars fell into the sea. It happened so suddenly,” she said.

Gabriel tried to slink away from the spotlight, but the focus of the reporter moved to him.

“What else happened, sir?” the reporter asked him.

“The mast was tangled with the cables. There was a loud noise and the tower shook,” said Gabriel.

“Did you come here together?” the reporter continued looking at both of them.

An embarrassed Gabriel replied, “No, I am here by myself. ” Gabriel could not make out what the lady said before disappearing into the crowd.

The television crew moved into the tower to take more pictures.

It tool some more time for him to catch the monorail. He imagined seeing himself being interviewed on the evening television news. His thoughts were often interrupted by the whirl of helicopters hovering overhead.

At the ferry terminal, there was buzz of excitement. Some passengers had opted to return by the private boats, which were doing a good business.

He had to wait for what seemed like an inordinately long time to board the ferry. The ferry skirted around the rescue area. The whole sea was ablaze with search lights. Gabriel could make out policemen in their blue uniforms on the oil drill, which was still stuck under the cables. Everyone craned their necks to look up at the two unfortunate cable cars hanging on the cables. The passengers could not stop talking about the tragedy, with many blaming the port authority for their carelessness. His thoughts were occasionally troubled by Damien’s offer, which he tried to put off from his mind.

It was very much past midnight when he reached Sheares Hall hostel at Kent Ridge. The common room was deserted. Newspapers and magazines were strewn all over the chairs and sofas. Gabriel never understood why the residents had to leave a mess each night to be tidied up by the cleaners. He switched on the television set and sat glued to it, watching a live coverage of the rescue at the cable car disaster site. He half-expected to see himself being interviewed.  After waiting for half an hour with no indication of any interview, he headed straight for Damien’s room. There was no answer. Not wishing to go down again to the common room, he decided to read about the accident in the next day’s newspapers. When he retired to his single room, he let out a sigh of relief.

It had indeed been a day of drama and mixed emotions. After carefully filing his notes for the day, he ate some biscuits and washed them down with a hot cup of  horlicks.

Half an hour later when he checked before going to bed, Damien had yet to return. He wondered whether Damien’s father had found about the gambling session and he felt his hands sweating again.  Gabriel had heard that gambling sessions lasted throughout the night because gamblers would not give up that easily; so he probably had nothing to worry about. Consoling himself with such thoughts, he prepared for bed with the glad feeling that he could sleep late because there were no lectures on the following day. However sleep would not come easily because his thoughts turned to Damien’s offer. Damien was sure to bring up the subject – how much longer would he give Gabriel to decide? Opportunity, although a twisted one, was knocking at his door. What should he do?

He was awakened in the mid- morning by a hurried knock.  Damien was standing at the door, wearing the same clothes that he had worn the day before. He had not shaved, which was most unusual for him. His face looked haggard.

“Must have been a long session, ”said a sleepy Gabriel, still in his pyjamas.

“I just returned.”

“Did you hear the news; an oil drill hit the cable cars yesterday.”

“I haven’t seen the papers. Look, I need your help, ”said Damien

“What?” Gabriel’s worst fears had come true.

“Come downstairs with me to the car park to tell my lawyer that I was with you the whole of yesterday in Sentosa.”

“Lawyer or your father?”

” The firm’s lawyer” Damien repeated

“But I thought you won’t be involved with the law……”

“I also thought so. The police are involved.”

”Gambling raid?” Gabriel asked.”

“No, I was asking someone to return some money,” said Damien.

“I thought you were gambling?”

”I was collecting money owed to me by a gambler.”

“Extortion?” asked Gabriel.

”Nothing of that sort. Would you come with me and speak to the lawyer. He’ll handle it from then onwards. You don’t need to do anything else.”

”You’re not coming clean with me,” said Gabriel angrily.

“It’s just a big mistake. You promised to help me. Change your clothes and we’ll go now.”

“I don’t want to tangle with the law. I was only prepared to be an alibi in case your father asked.”

“Does it matter? Just help me,” pleaded Damien. Gone was the confidence that he always exuded.

“I didn’t bargain for the lawyer and the police.”

“If it’s money that you want, I’ll see you are rewarded,” said Damien. The remarks stung Gabriel, did Damien consider him to be that low-down?

“What do you take me for?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that,” said Damien.

“I’ll come with you, never for any money, but because you’re my friend,” Gabriel said emphatically.

“I’ll be grateful. I don’t forget favours, “, a smile appeared on Damien’s weary face.

“Are you sure that I won’t get into any trouble?” asked Gabriel.

“Our firm employs a good lawyer.  I have told him I was with you. Just confirm that and he’ll take it from there.”

“So your father knows”

“Of course, what else?” said Damien

Damien led the way down the staircase with a reluctant Gabriel in his tow. One thing was clear to Gabriel now. He was going to refuse any offer to join Damien’s smuggling syndicate. Damien was not that competent after all. Gabriel did not have to make that agonising decision, this unexpected turn of events had made that decision for him.

When they passed the common room, Ariffin Ahmad called out,

“Hey Gabriel, I just saw you on TV.”

“They interviewed me, “ said Gabriel

“Yes, there were some interviews.”

“ Was my interview on it?”

“No but the stunning girl with you was interviewed. Who’s she?” asked Ariffin.

Gabriel just smiled and said, “ A friend.” It was harmless fib.

Then something dawned on him- he could not be Damien’s alibi.

“I can’t give a statement,” he turned and said to Damien.

”Why not?”

“Too many people have seen me on television,” said Gabriel.

“What?”

“I was interviewed.”

“So, what?”

“They saw me alone. You were not there.”

“Who will remember? I could have been around,” asked Damien

“Someone might just remember-  that girl, the reporter……. ”

“They don’t know you or me. I still have the cable car ticket.”

“What about Ariffin and others at the hostel?”

“Why should they be bothered? If they ever ask you, make up a story,” said Damien

“Tell another lie?”

”A sort of. ”

“I would have,” said Gabriel, “but not this way.”

“We had a deal.”

“Lies quarrel among themselves.”

”So you won’t help me”. There was desperation in Damien’s voice.

Gabriel felt pity for him. Damien had always been good to him, but the more he thought about what could happen, the more jittery he became.  There was damning evidence on videotape if it ever came to light. If not for that, he would have helped Damien, but appearing on television had not been of his own choice. He would forever regret not helping Damien, but he could jeopardise his own safety by committing perjury.

“I’m sorry. Not that I won’t, but I can’t”

“What about all that inflated talk about friendship, just a few minutes ago?” asked Damien.

“ I didn’t know it’ll turn out this way……the accident, reporter, interview.”

“What’s the difference now?  I should have known better than to trust you,” Damien said and slunk away quietly.

Three weeks later, Gabriel read this in the newspapers:-

“An undergraduate Damien Li was jailed for 6 months for posing as a police officer and trying to cheat Leong Ah Heng of $1000. Damien met Leong at the junction of Yio Chu Kang Road and Track 24 on the evening of 23rd January 1983 and demanded $1000 to settle a case for Leong’s friend whose shop had been raided by the Film Censors Board. He promised to help Leong’s friend out of the problem. Leong reported the matter to the Police and identified Damien. ”

[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]

2005