Usually I like to store odd or notable things I see in daily life in the back of my head for stories- but there’s just this one thing that I saw that’s too cute for me to invent around. There’s an open air parking lot that I use when I eat at MacDonalds, and I often hear the sound of a lone trombone echoing across the parking lot. This happens usually around midnight. After a few times encountering this trombone on different nights, it occured to me how odd it was, and that I should investigate. Turns out, right next to the carpark at the old bus interchange, there’s a lone trombone player, a young girl, sitting on a chair. She likes to practice late at night. It’s so surreal.
The conscript is always a beat away from being shouted at. It frightens him. His trainers frighten him in the same primal way that schoolchildren fear teachers. They expect of him a soldier’s discipline and efficiency. If he does not eat quickly, he will be punished. If he wears a watch on the wrong wrist, he will be punished. If he is slow in pitching a tent, he will be punished. If he fails to fill his canteen to a quivering brim, he will be punished.
He learns to bolt at a whistles call. The soldiers are fierce, their expectations high. He will have to learn meet them. Not halfway, but all the way.
Their methods are punitive. An error is one step closer to the detention barracks. It gives their authority a frightful force, one borne out of fear, not out of respect.
Commodities become luxuries. He eyes the vending machines like a tramp gazing through a shop window. The machines are bright, eerie and very beckoning. Out of bounds. The braver conscripts use them when no one is looking. He is not that brave. He longs for a Coke.
On their first day, the recruits travel by boat to the training island. They sit with their fathers who have endured before them. Life in training is easy- a father tells a son. All you have to do is follow orders. The boat docks and the warm blast of tropical heat greets them. Everything here has an order to it. Even the birds fly in formation.
Later, the recruits give their hair a final tussle. The razor has a bite like a hungry lover. Afterwards they run their fingers through the surface of their scalps, stubby and alien surfaces. Their skin tingles when the wind brushes their freshly shaved heads.
Their initials have become their names. Some of them are singled out and punished, pointed out and mocked for being fractions of a second slow. They are expected to be able to field strip a rifle in sixty seconds. Many are punished before they are able to do so. Their aching arms quiver from being in the push up position far too many times.
They sleep in the shared space of angry testosterone. Every conscript is miserable for himself and himself only. The day begins before dawn, where they are woken by the violent snap of a plastic switch being flipped, followed by bright lights. They learn to dread the sound. This is how every day starts. With fluorescent light and a funeral air.
Life is reduced to an absurd simplicity. Eat. Sleep. Run. Sit. Stay still. March. Bathe. Run. Eat. Run faster. Eat faster. All the conscript wants is not to get shouted at. It makes him quick and fearful. On the island, there is no existential crisis, no transcendent fear.
This conscript is always a beat too slow. It makes him familiar to his trainers. They identify him by his first name, stitched on his fatigues. His name is shouted, the sounds turning his name into something accusative, vulgar.
In the jungle he sees the silhouettes of his fellow conscripts against the setting sun. The silhouettes obscure the fear, the dirty faces, the worn and tired eyes. The shapes are proud, militant. They have marched for miles and can march for many more. Can do. No problem sir.
Amongst the stillness of the jungle he longs for simple things. A bed. A nice, cold Coke. Five blessed minutes of not being shouted at. At night he hears the planes go by overhead, the lights on the wings blinking along with the stars in the sky. As he hears the quiet patter of raindrops on the canvas tent, he realises how long away from home he is. The thought alone is enough to make him weep.
My work is featured in this new collection by Epigram!
Cover design by Yong Wen Yeu
I am very proud to announce the contents and cover design for the third volume of the Best New Singaporean Short Stories anthology series, guest edited by Cyril Wong, to be published in October 2017 by Epigram Books, and launched at Kinokuniya later that month.
The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Three gathers the finest Singaporean stories published in 2015 and 2016, selected from hundreds published in journals, magazines, anthologies and single-author collections. Accompanying the stories are the editor’s preface and an extensive list of honourable mentions for further reading.
Here is the table of contents:
- Cyril Wong | Preface
- Jason Erik Lundberg | Introduction
- Yeo Wei Wei | These Foolish Things
- Yeoh Jo-Ann | The Thing
- Jennifer Anne Champion | See It Coming
- Jon Gresham | Walking Backwards Up Bukit Timah Hill
- Ovidia Yu | Salvation Solution
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I like to think that I would be best friends with the woman at the balcony. I often see her thin silhouette, framed by the warm light of her second floor bedroom. She stands silently at the balcony as I pass by on the street below.
I like to think that she sees me as I see her, as a comrade in arms, in battle against a common enemy. We have the same problem, after all.
The streets are dark and a lit orange.
I see a great many things on my late night strolls. I once saw a man stumble out of a KTV joint, falling on the floor on his way out. Another man helped him up and led him to the driver’s seat of his car, telling him un-ironically to drive safely. I couldn’t decide which man I was more disgusted with. Perhaps if he had said it ironically, that would have been a tiebreaker for me. As if that would have redeemed him for me, somehow. I once stood outside a house, hearing a couple screaming in a language I didn’t understand. I stood there a long time, wondering if I should call the police.
What else do I see? The lazy stare of the late night shift worker at the 24 hour Seven Eleven. The headlights of a lone diesel powered van, the rattle hum of its engine trailing outwards, forever lonely. My shadow, under orange streetlights.
I see the bare feet of the shirtless man, sticking out the driver’s side window of his truck. I certainly don’t have his problems, and as I hear him snore loudly, I know he doesn’t have mine either. The curtains of the woman on the balcony are drawn as I stroll back home. The Sun’s coming up soon.
Time for bed.
I enjoy walking into places in which
No one knows my name.
Workshops, Women’s bathrooms, the city of Paris
I’m just kidding! (I’ve never been to Paris.)
If heaven is a place on Earth,
Its the Place where I could hit the ground running
Ready to fail with false bravado
“I was in the Military”, I’ll say.
And she’ll say wow, brushing her hair back,
and I’ll smile, knowing full well
that this never meant anything back home.
Despite the excitement of being airborne,
Its only a trick of light, of rising up and touching down,
So Fasten your seatbelts
for the sudden rush of Landscape,
The print preview of the burning city.
But one gets the nagging feeling,
that its the same unthrilling thing everywhere.
I’m Out of the dark and crying in the cold
Wondering with these things
Of What would happen if I just didn’t stop
Talking, how Long would it take
For any one of you to stop me,
Because it’s true, isn’t it?
You can’t love the spotlight without also biding your time in the dark, and life’s all about being the biggest narcissist in the world . Then breaking him down. Telling him, it’s not about you. It’s not about you.
But it is about me.
It’s a modern kind of anxiety, this strange, nagging need for things to be
Just- the-way- you- want- it.
Boiling down to it,
I’m forever an amateur
Which is why, of all the confrontations I’ve had,
With the plain faces and all the god damned Beauties,
It’s the one that avoids my gaze in the mirror,
more mirage than perfect image,
which is the strangest face of all
It is 11.30 AM and already I feel the weight of standing up while lying down.
Every non-well-adjusted person knows this feeling. The unseizable day.
Everything on a bad day feels like a first draft of something else. There’s a sense of being unwoken, though my eyes are open, I am numb. If you understand, you’ve probably have days like that too.
I was supposed to be in therapy today, but I decided to lie in bed instead, watching old clips of Mad Men on Youtube. It wasn’t that I did not have the energy to go, it was that I didn’t want to. Ironically, I find therapy least effective when I am most unhappy. When I am most unhappy, I often find myself not wanting to talk to anyone at all. For the afflicted, you probably identify with this too.
Therapy is a hell of a lot like speed dating. I’ve sat on a great many sofas, couches, waiting rooms with certificates and answered many, many leading questions. I’ve been on a carousel of medication, from Ritalin to Xanax to Wellbutrin etc…
So far, everything has worked half heartedly. Therapy is very abstract, with its countless acronyms and structures and worksheets. On some days, to be asked leading questions for a good period of an hour and to feel that the therapist does not “get it” is frustrating.
There are days where my heart is inscrutable, like a still and vast ocean. Other days it feels as though my will is balanced on something infinitely small and precarious. It makes me angry.
There are, thankfully, good days too. On those days I might feel fascination with an article, a tv show or a good book. I enjoy a good conversation, or the company of my friends.
I was very impressed with Bruce Springsteen’s quotes on depression, which he has suffered from. Article Here. He wrote that “you don’t know the illness parameters.”
Its very true. Depression has many angles of attack. Some days it feels like a stifling boredom, other days an existential despair. In its harshest form it becomes a self imposed exile on Life via suicide.
Therapy, I feel, is very often a conflict between the values of the therapist and the client. There really are no “silver bullets” to things, whether you look at philosophy, psychology or psychiatry. In fact, the many interconnecting and sometimes conflicting views provide great anxiety.
Sometimes all we need is for someone to tell us, ” You aren’t okay. And that’s okay.”
Memory is the great denominator of experience. It’s what we use to construct the narratives about ourselves- who we were, who we are and how we got here.
My best memories are those in which I am in good company, and it is those memories that have the most nostalgia to them. People come and go, drift for many reasons, and those memories bring the sense of life as something constantly fleeting. A sense that brings about within me some pain and yearning.
The newest memories are the least abstract- it is always the old ones that are the oddest, the ones from childhood that come sepia toned, that come from the lens of a different, younger self.
It is hard to identify with this younger self- the one that would have been content to come home from school and plug in the Guitar Hero set and play fake guitar for a couple of hours.
I remember being happy at meeting new people in Poly, and being extra happy when someone noticed by presence in one way or another.
The older self is afraid that he will spend the rest of his days lacking human meaning. ( Which would look like? Self fulfilment? Which would look like? Who knows? Not Me.)
It’s a bit fuzzy now how many years I’ve struggled with depression. It feels like 4, which is quite a scary number to say. I was never particularly happy. I struggle with finding meaning and purpose, and I struggle with it every single day. The day to day banalities of human life has a difficult weight to it. It’s a difficult thing to talk about even with trained professionals, and that difficulty makes existence on occasion, very lonely.
Early in 2015, I dropped out of school. I did not feel good about myself. I would cross the overhead bridge from school and visualise throwing myself off it. I would go to class and fantasize just throwing myself full force into the windowpane and falling into the street below.
I eventually returned to pursue my studies elsewhere, but in that long period of downtime I struggled to fill my time. I have been fortunate to have supportive parents and a privileged background, and I kept my mouth shut about my existential boredom. It’s a strange and somewhat lucky problem to have- the problem of having too much time and having nothing to do. I wouldn’t have dared to communicate it to many people I know.
I like to think that in that time of struggle, I learnt to do many things. I finally picked up writing, and I wrote many short stories in that period. I had taken part in a poetry writing event, interestingly done on typewriters, and managed to get my coverage of the event published online. I met someone interesting at the event “portraits after dark”, and we had some very interesting conversations.
Although I’ve been back in school, I still struggle with long periods of down time, which often triggers my existential crisis. After dropping out in 2015, time has just felt like one very long weekend. In the absence of an anchor, I keep track of the relation of time via the passing of Game of Thrones seasons. Jon Snow has fallen and then risen, in my time of struggle. That fact alone is enough to give me a panic attack.
And so my story continues. I still struggle every day.
My first twenty three years were administrative.
I was the last name on a black and white ledger of people. Some of which are dead.
There are two administrative photographs side by side on the table.
They are not included here.
They exist as A didactic apparatus: a photographic memoir of my life.
Somewhere in the world, in an unlabled cabinet, are rows and rows of black and white cctv footage of my transits- footage as I pass through gantries and elevator corridors and toilets stored on black magnetic tape reeled up and hidden and unplayed and will serve as some avant garde story of my life if unspooled and played all at once. Me impartial, forever overhead at three quarters of an angle from the ceiling, crossing to a distance off camera.
The photographs are not displayed here.
The reason these photographs are not included is simple. They are obviously so incongruent in sizes. One is normal, the other is laughably small and hence infuriates yours truly as whatever attempt to display them, side by side, as a didactic apparatus. Any attempt to be impartial in presentation would draw to attention the incongruity of the pictures, it’s failure of objectivity. It can not and never will be solemn.
In the first photograph:
I am half smiling in a secondary school uniform. I do not know why I smiled. I do not know many things about my past self. The boy with the bangs with the cat-ate-the-canary smile.
In the second photograph, the size of the photo comically small. I am not smiling. I am against a blue backdrop. I am the third person to be photographed by an annoying manchild. We are in his room, and it is his room. He utilises a measure of control within this room, taking this as an opportunity to utilise indecency as a show of force. As all small men do. He makes us sit straight backed in our hard chairs as he makes a pathetic and vague speech about how we are about to become military men and must have discipline. His hands are folded behind his back in the classic military posture. He refuses to take my photograph the first time round, staring past me as he calls for the next person in line. I have violated a rule he has made up in that split second instant: I did not brush my hair back properly. Get to the back of the line again. He says. The second time I sit again in the chair, I brush my hair in the exact same way as I did previously. He finally takes the picture. I am not smiling.
This is not a story.
I sit in the train as these familiar streets dolly past me. One of the last few trains of the day at a time way past the rush hour. One can sit in peace and meditate free from notions that time is lost by rumination.
I usually think of what’s still open for supper around the last bus home. Shuttered lots and shrouds over discount piles and muted figures scuttling past the orange lights. I can hear myself breathing. At this time, get Macs. (Of course)
At night, Macs is the palace of lost souls, a society unto itself. Shuttered lots and shrouds over discount piles and muted figures past orange lights and the hiss of lone cars. There it stands, warm, bright and loud as I step in from the dark. Dare I say home. Dare I say utopia. It is the place to wait while the tide within me recedes.
Today, however, I don’t feel hungry. I`m thinking of plates. Paper plates.
After a six day bonding camp at YMCA, we were supposed to write down things we felt for each other. The only thing we had to write on were paper plates, and so we wrote. Cute little didactic things we scribbled- Patricia writes “You are a very nice person.” in green ink on mine. We were thirteen after all.
Pint sized Stephanie, who wore a bandana of rainbows over her head. She scraped her head and wore it to cover it up. I partially remember it because of the post card sized photo we took on the first day. She wrote, ” You like all that I like, and you have a very kind heart.” The last sentence, scribbled among the ridges; “You are fit to be a leader.” No one in the army ever told me that. But when Stephanie writes that for you, you don’t need the army.
That was a time before everything banal that happens is tweeted, pictured and oh oh tee deed twelve seconds after it happens at sixteen megabits per second. I have no idea what happened to all these people I had met when I was still pint sized. What ever happened to Patricia. What ever happened to dear old Steph. I wonder if they kept their plates.
All that’s left of them is my memory and what they wrote, and both over time are fading. But this is where I alight.
She has skin like porcelain. We glide towards each other on opposite tangents. Her face is bereft of meaning as she stares ahead behind me. A moment before we pass on the escalator, we exist as something perfectly symmetrical – bodies on mirrored journeys. I hope for the briefest flick of her eyes to meet mine, but she passes and then she’s gone.
There is a time for every rambling thought in these spiral bound notebooks. Writing, making sense of some inconsolable loss.
She had a beautiful name. In the mornings I used to pray. I spend that time now, in place of prayer, thinking about her.
” We can’t be together. You know that.”
“I don’t know.”
“I do. And I’m sorry.”
“What did I do wrong.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s nothing in particular. I just don’t think this would have ever worked out. I don’t want to waste your time.”
“But I do want you to waste my time. By God, I’ve never wanted anything else more in this world.”
I’ve stopped trying to write everything down.
Everyone has a checklist, and invisible one and for every love there is a prolepsis, and analytical introspective clarity of the moment where the curtains draw themselves apart.
She didn’t love me and I never checked any of her boxes in her checklist. No reason in particular. It hurts that she thinks that was the most sympathetic thing possible to say.
I don’t pray anymore. Instead, I propel myself towards the world. Engineer serendipity. Take the first bus you see. Take me past the places I know where no one will know my face.
“I’ll wait for you in a corner till the sun sets.”
“What if I don’t come. What if this is all there is.”
“Then there is a comfort in being alone in the city. If you’ll happen to cross paths again, I’ll let you know you were always beautiful. ”
I`ll wait for you.
It`s going to be a long time.
Never? Never’s a long time to wait.
Face me. Turn. Never look back