A Child, a Bug or a Marmoset?

Tahar
a short story by Yeow Kai Chai

What’s left of it: toppled plywood, embers glowering, two toasted mannequins smiling serenely, limbs and torsos fused in a heap of fecund goo and nostalgia.

The curator says he spotted the pyromaniac creating a ruckus at the Changi Village Circa 1970s exhibit at 3.14am this morning.

According to the curator, it is a human child, probably a runaway. The latter, he says, was crouching under Styrofoam coconut trees and masticating on some stolen food. Ribcage discernible through skin as he ripped out fake lallang trees either in a fit of frenzy or hunger before striking a match.

The cleaner, however, swears it is some mid-sized primate. The auntie says she saw it yesterday afternoon at 2.51pm, squealing excitedly among waves (cerulean blue MDF cutouts painted with streaks of milky white to create the façade of movements), before scooting away.

Other folk say it was scrawnier, tinier and wirier than a human child, with large, inquisitive eyes set in the face of a marmoset or a tamarin caught in the headlights.

Yet other staff, more fabulously inclined, conjecture it is something more sinister, a sly trickster, a giant praying mantis, no, a baby bug, right out of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis; or William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch; or Alice In Wonderland.

Everybody has an interpretation; each version becomes more vivid and more grandiose than the last one, so much so that the sheer telling of it has enlivened the entire Museum.

*

Trim and taciturn, he has worked assiduously for more than three decades as a design curator at the National Museum and is justly rewarded for it.

He values his job and derives the meaning of his entire existence from it. He possesses the air of a Brylcreem-slick careerist who takes silent pride in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, and who patrols the various rooms to make sure everything is in order.

The Museum, after all, is the only place left where any trace of pre-millennial Singapore (1999 and earlier) can be re-experienced. Outside, much has been razed to the ground in the relentless pursuit of modernity – and while the collateral damage is unfortunate, it is necessary, the curator rationalises to himself and to each new batch of curators.

Alas, even he can’t last. Appointed the head curator for the past 10 years, the 64-year-old has to retire in a month’s time, relinquishing his position to his deputy, an oily, an obviously obsequious chap half his age and who he knows has been eyeing his post.

His bugbear: His successor isn’t one for exact verisimilitude. Instead, the guy has been pushing for an armoury of fanciful multi-media technology.

A Foursquare-style app where visitors can encounter historic sites on their mobile devices? A hologrammatic cabin where you can step in and role-play as Cleopatra or Madonna – all smoke and fire to attract young people, the curator reckons.

The curator, however, is very proud to be old-school. Although he has relented to the (sparing) use of animatronics and sonic punctuations, he much prefers the tactile/visual experience of feeling and seeing. Keep things true to life. Do your research. Recreate to a T. Authenticity is vital if you want to keep history alive, is his mantra.

Which is why if you were to ask him which exhibit he is proudest of, he’ll point to this one, his last project. Yes, the Changi Village one.

He likes hanging out here (although it is tucked away in the farthest, least visited nether region of the Museum). Here he could almost feel the cool breeze as it used to be, the susurrus of leaves and the trill of birdsong, and kids screeching as they play duelling kites with strings glazed with glass bits.

This is a piece of heaven compared to the scorching heat outside with its gleaming skyscrapers and concrete mausoleums.

Besides, he personally supervised the construction of the exhibit from start to finish. The carpenters were all dutifully chastised if they moved a pebble too much to the left, or made a bush too bushy, or got a shade of green wrong. And the soothing sound of crashing waves to remind you of the good ol’ kelong days? Yes, that was his idea, although he does not see the need to crow about it.

His efforts are for posterity. The exhibit is recognised as the most precise and impressive replica of Changi Point circa 1975 and has won several awards. So gawk at its panoramic sweep – whitewashed colonial bungalows, hawker centre, three-storey flats, shophouses and an undulating open field framed by rows of terrace units. This, he feels most deeply and unquestionably, is the truest Changi, not the heavily-sanitised, prettied-up Changi you know now, with its gleaming condos, resorts, water sports and Michelin-starred restaurants.

While the awards are nice, the greatest reward is being there. Without fail, during one of his daily pee breaks, he’d perambulate and somehow drop by at the exhibit.

He’d pay special attention to the exquisite 1mx1m diorama that was installed at one discreet corner. Why? Well, he built it – with his bare hands. It’s a bijou masterpiece, put together over countless sleepless nights with glue, sweat and raw materials sourced from art shops at Bras Basah Complex, and unbeknownst to his staff, for which he had forked out thousands of dollars.

Recreated from his own set of carefully laminated but fraying photos (although many had been scanned and saved in hard disks), it’s a near-faithful 3-D snapshot of his childhood.

He relishes the details only a few would know. Exquisite is the jetty with its platform propped up on stilts, bumboats huddled at the mouth. How perfectly placed is the tentacular sewage pipe, only a stone’s throw away from the spit. Don’t overlook these giant boulders that hide crabs, mudskippers and what-nots, things not apparent to the naked eye. This plastic monkey perched on a stump? It was a macaque kept by the jetty operator. The primate, he recalls fondly, had a dog collar and was tethered to a gigantic angsana tree via a long metallic chain. Most times, it’d stay high up in the tree, but sometimes, it’d come down to play with the kids. What about this coconut tree at the side of the open field? It was his family’s tree. And the nondescript unit next to it? That was where he used to live as a child.

As for these finely drawn porcelain figurines strewn all over the green field, they would be the village kids playing football, or hide-and-seek. The roly-poly one was he. And that skinny kid next to him, that was Tahar.

*

The dreams have returned with a vengeance a few weeks ago just as the sightings of the intruder begin to disrupt the peace and quiet.

For seven nights in a row, he’d wake up in his king-sized bed, clutching his Egyptian-cotton bed sheet, all sweaty and thinking momentarily he was still a child. That was until he’d see his wife sleeping beside him like a log. He’d then look out the floor-to-ceiling window of his 29th-floor condo, and watch the lights of the cargo ships blur into stars, stars we don’t see anymore.

They are more or less versions of the same dream he’s had since he was nine, but which (he thought) have vanished once he entered adulthood.

In them, Tahar emerges from a tunnel or a big drain – sometimes as a child and sometimes older, a teenager or even a middle-aged man – his clothes grimy and badly torn from the slide. Otherwise, he looks nimble and very much alive. Tahar would look back only to discover there is neither exit nor entrance anymore. The next moment, he would morph into a national serviceman wandering aimlessly in a jungle, dressed in army No. 4’s, charging up Peng Kang Hill and shooting at no one in particular; or he would turn into a monkey, squealing, as if retrogressing back into a primal state. The afternoon sun – crimson red, redder than he remembers – beats down on Tahar. For hours, he stays hidden, camouflaged among the trees. Once in a while, he’d ask for directions to the beach from passers-by, couples getting their wedding shots and young families picnicking, but they all ignore and shoo the dirty kid/monkey away.  As night falls, mosquitoes close in on him. He’s getting hungry and colder by the minute.

Then suddenly Tahar turns and looks at him directly in the eye, asking for an answer.

*

As news of the intruder spreads, the Museum enjoys a spike in visitorship – much to the curator’s private dismay.

There’s too much noise, too many people.

Still, he stands atop the steps to its Neo-Palladian entrance and watches, Raffles-like, the latest march-past of school children waddling inside and closely herded by a sad, hassled-looking teacher, he can’t help but feel sympathy, no, pity, well up inside his steely exterior.

Kids these days are a sorry lot. All cooped up in their rooms and slaves to machinery. Logged on to computers, texting on phones or updating their Facebook statuses as if anyone cares.

They live only in the now, even as now has become history.

So, the curator humours himself, laughing quietly as he trails the excursion. The hapless teacher clucks in a near-automaton voice about how the kampungs have been transformed into gleaming new towns. The children, drunk with their youthful invincibility, run around, chase one another, poke at this and that, in a simulacrum within air-conditioned confines.

Poor things. These kids will never be able to enjoy the freedom he and Tahar had when they were their age.

He and Tahar, they were like two peas in the same pod. They were next-door neighbours and they were in the same class in school.

Some people said they could pass off as identical twins, having the same big saucer eyes and bushy brows. The only difference was that he was younger by a month and, um, chubbier and sloppier. In comparison, Tahar was thiner, taller and much more focused.

They had, by all accounts, a most idyllic childhood. They’d hang out with other kids for games and such. But more often than not, they’d explore the nooks and crannies of the village on their own. They were partners-in-crime. They’d pretend that they are pirates, or sea-faring adventurers, or treasure-hunters. They’d climb up the huge mango tree and shake the sleeping bats hanging from the branches. Their No. 1 hangout, though, was the artery of longkangs, those stinky drains that offered an alternative universe filled with guppies, tilapia, lizards and insects. These longkangs would snake under tarmac and earth. Some drains hit dead ends, others turned into sewage pipes and ended in huge, deep pools.

Others resurface in a restricted air base, a nicely-trimmed golf course or better, a place they had no idea existed.

*

When the first break-in happened about three weeks ago, they thought it was a stray cat or a dog.

A transom window in the Museum’s right wing near the Bukit Timah Exhibit Circa 1950s was left ajar. It was agreed there was no way a life-sized human being – not even a dwarf kid – could squeeze through. The receptionist’s carrot cake, left at the pantry, was half-eaten. The fridge ransacked. A chocolate milk carton was licked dry.

And then various things went amiss or got stolen or mysteriously rearranged. Sightings of a mysterious intruder who can appear and disappear at will begin to be reported. A museum volunteer said somebody has snatched his popsicle right out of his hand but could not ascertain who or what the culprit was. Somebody from Corp Comms found her iPhone missing from her Charles and Keith handbag, only to locate it ringing loudly on a step in the adjacent glass rotunda. A waiter from the restaurant said leftovers on customers’ plates have been wiped clean. The head curator complained his diorama has been shifted about 24cms to the left of its original position, and a plastic monkey from it is purloined too. Visitors said their wallets, lighters, key chains and miscellaneous items had been pickpocketed.

Of course, none of this constitutes proof that this intruder is responsible for all the misdemeanours, or whether some people are making things up.

That is, not until the Museum decided to install more CCTVs and managed to capture the first sustained encounter between a person and the intruder.

Two weeks ago, a 20-year-old woman said the intruder attacked her without provocation. She told the security she was walking along the corridor to the female toilet at about 7.54pm when a ravenous child jumped in front of her.

He was nine years old, perhaps 10, and his eyes were bloodshot. He looked like he hadn’t showered for ages. She said he lunged at her and was pulling at her hair and her clothes.  She said she screamed, fled into the washroom and into a cubicle and then locked the door behind her.

The thing is, the CCTV, which could only capture the incident outside the washroom, recorded a somewhat different story.

The woman, it appeared, wasn’t just walking towards the toilet and minding her own business. She was calling out to someone or something, as she held out a plate of peanuts, loaves of bread and some cakes. After about five minutes, a figure appeared from the bottom right-hand corner of the screen.

It was likely a boy and about 1m tall, although no facial features was discernible due to the graininess and pixellation of the video footage. It was more a black silhouette. He was tiptoeing and had only one dark shoe on. Once in a while, he’d look sideways and over his shoulder, clearly worried that he might be caught.

He crept up behind the woman who swung around and immediately started throwing the peanuts, cakes and bread at him. He flinched, stumbled backwards and raised his hands to shield his face.

For an eternity of five, maybe six, seconds, none moved. Friend or foe? They stared at each other, trying to decipher each other’s intentions. Then he turned and bolted out of the screen.

*

The fateful afternoon continues to replay in his mind as if it has just happened yesterday. Till today, after more than half a century, he hasn’t mustered courage to tell the truth.

It was a day more or less like this, except for the weather. The sun was blistering, although it was more yellow than crimson. The sky was the purest of blue and there was not a speckle of cloud.

After school at 6.30pm, he convinced Tahar to take a detour on their walk home so they can play with the macaque at the jetty for a while – never mind that they had a big test the next day. He figured that Tahar would ace the test anyway. Suffice to say, he had always been a bit jealous of him, but Tahar always let him copy his homework so he did not mind that much.

He remembers there were only a handful of people lazing around the jetty at this time.  Nobody paid attention to two children, except for the bored macaque perched on a rock stool near the tree.

“After this, we go home, okay?” Tahar said.

“Okay, okay, after this lah, we go back and study,” he replied, then picked up a stone at the surprised macaque that shrieked and glared back at him. He threw another pebble which hit it in the abdomen.

“Don’t hit him,” Tahar exhorted.

But he did not listen and continued pelting the animal. The macaque, squealing in pain, tried to scurry up the angsana tree, but he pulled its chain and dragged it towards him.

At that moment, the chain snapped. The macaque, suddenly tasting impending freedom, leaped over his shoulder, scrambled past Tahar’s feet and raced towards the direction of the open sewage pipe at the beach, and vanished into it.

For a nanosecond, the two boys froze.

“We must find it. Otherwise, I’d get into big trouble,” he pleaded Tahar.

“But if we can’t find, you have to come clean. Tell the jetty uncle,” Tahar said. “Okay?”

He nodded sheepishly.

The two pursued the macaque into the pipe. Gaping and hissing (some say toxic gases), it’s a contraption made of corrugated iron, protruding like a gargantuan earthworm out of the silt. The pipe was supposed to be out of bounds for local kids. Parents allowed their children to play everywhere, except here. Water, and god knows whatever it carried with it, could rush through, and take everything along with it.

The boys called out, “Monkey! Monkey! Come out!” A squeal echoed back.

Tahar, being the taller and the lighter of the two, climbed first into the pipe, white shoes instantly stained by algae and assorted debris. The second boy took a while, but soon followed suit, clinging on to Tahar’s white shirt, before stepping on the latter’s left foot. Tahar lost his footing, fell and slid further into the hole.

“Help me,” was the last utterance he heard from his friend.

Everything else was a blur afterwards. Adults came. Tahar’s parents were inconsolable. His own parents were too. He could not look them in the eye. For days and nights, rescuers cleared out the pipe, went through it but found nothing, except for more algae, debris, plastic bags, a shoe… At first, he wanted to tell everyone it was his fault.  Months and years went by and guilt ate into him, encrusting him like a mollusc shell. He clammed up for good.

That was the last time he saw his friend.

*

The curator finally has had enough.  Tonight’s the night. He will end all this nonsense about the intruder once and for all, arrest it/him, so things can go back to normal.

He doesn’t care much about the hoopla over the intruder, least of all partakes in any myth-making around the silly creature. The last straw was when the intruder started to mess with his Changi exhibit, dismantling and overturning things.

At midnight, he places a glass of fresh milk, a half-peeled banana and some cookies at the foot of the diorama, now missing a plastic monkey. Then he waits, hiding behind two smiling mannequins dressed up like kelong fishermen. Then he falls asleep.

At 3.12am, he is awakened by a rustling sound, crackling, then perceptible munching and happy slurping. The sounds are coming from the other side of the exhibit. Stealthily, he closes in, ready to prance and catch the culprit in the act. The munching gets louder. A match is struck, and a fire started.

He stops a metre away then turns on his torchlight.

The other party’s huge eyes turn towards him, as if in slo-mo, although it might have happened in a blink. There appears to be mutual recognition, a gasp of shock or sadness; a child and an old man outlined by flames that lick and flicker at plywood undergrowth. The whole thing smells rancid then clears.

Another pair of eyes, smaller, pop up from underneath, mischievous as ever. Before the curator, his eyes tearing from the smoke yet smiling, could say a word, the two accomplices slip away, back into the darkness.

The End

Reprinted with the author’s permission.

First published in Balik Kampung, edited by Verena Tay, Math Paper Press.

About his relationship to Changi Village, Yeow Kai Chai writes,

Changi Village, my home for the first decade of my life in the 1970s, has always felt like an idyllic alterna-universe far from the madding crowd. The British had left, and everything was a fresh start. Growing up was a time of discovering wide-open spaces and mysterious storm drains. I remember Paul Anka’s song, Times of Your Life: ‘Good morning yesterday / You wake up, and time has slipped away / And suddenly it’s hard to find, the memories you left behind.’ Tahar, then is a story of changes, of looking back and forward. And yes, it is named after my then best buddy.

changi-village-shops-1972

Changi Village c. 1972, photo by Derek Tait, from The Long and Winding Road.

Yeow Kai Chai has two poetry collections, Pretend I’m Not Here (2006), and Secret Manta (2001), which was adapted from an entry shortlisted for the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize. He graduated with a Master of Arts in English Literature from the National University of Singapore where he won top prizes in poetry and creative prose for two years in the NUS Literary Society’s annual competition. His writing has appeared overseas in journals like Sweden’s Ars Interpres and France’s La Traductiere as well as anthologies like the W.W. Norton & Co.’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. Aside from being co-editor of the online journal Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS), he also co-edited Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems in 2009 for the National Arts Council. A music critic and former deputy editor of Life! The Straits Times, he is the English section editor of My Paper, Singapore’s bilingual free-sheet.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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