Stories That Breathe

A Singapore Love Story

Chapter 1

Joo Koon

I was molested when I was seven years old.

It was the first day of school. As Daddy drove across the school, Mummy complained about everything: from the rusty gates all the way to the heavy traffic. “If only we had bought that house in Bukit Timah instead of Jurong,” Mummy said when she took off her seat belt, “we wouldn’t have been in this neighbourhood school.”

I was too young to understand why living in Bukit Timah meant studying in a top school. I just nodded. During the briefing in the hall, our parents sat behind while the new students sat in front. Once the principal stepped onto the stage, he launched into a droning speech. The students were wiping their sweat with either tissue paper or their sleeves.

After the briefing, the students were led to their classrooms while the parents went somewhere else. As Mrs Yeo, my form teacher, introduced herself, a few adults began to loiter outside the classroom. Eventually, five of them remained there, peering through the louvre windows. One of them was Mummy.

A boy in uniform that seemed to be recycled sat on my right. Another boy, with a mushroom-shaped haircut, was on my left. I tried to look for Daddy, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“Yo,” the boy in recycled uniform said. “Mrs Yeo look like pig hor. So very fat.”

I sat up straight. Mummy had told me this the day before: Don’t talk to boys. Don’t talk when the teacher is talking. Raise your hand if you want to go to the toilet.

“Relax lar, girl, don’t sit like that, not National Day leh,” the boy blurted.

I laid my eyes on Mrs Yeo, and then counted the number of words she said.

Oei, I talking to you leh. Girl?”

I turned to face him, hoping that he would shut up.

“You see Mrs Yeo the hair, like grass. Football grass.”

Mrs Yeo was still shouting students’ names. As each name was called, the student would teeter towards her. Then Mrs Yeo would point to a seat.

Oei, girl, you iron your hair? Your hair is so straight. You also iron your front? No two milk. Mrs Yeo got milk like cows. See, if you are thirsty, go drink.”

I kept my eyes on Mrs Yeo.

“You better don’t drink so many milk. If not your front will have milk.” Someone tapped my chest. “Then you must buy new shirt. Mine, Uncle find outside school. Always got people throw away.”

I raised my hand. Mrs Yeo took two seconds to notice me. “Yes?” She squinted. “Valerie?”

I pointed to my right. “He is talking.”

I felt two more touches on my chest. After that, the boy’s voice: “Mrs Yeo, I never talk. I just touch her. Like this.” Another two touches.

Then Mummy appeared in the classroom with heavy steps. Mrs Yeo rushed to her and, one minute later, a male teacher came in and escorted the boy away. “To the principal’s room,” Mrs Yeo had said. The boy scowled at me.

Mummy then told me that I had just been molested. I thought that “molest” was just another word for “touch”.

* * *

The boy came back after my mini Casio watch had beeped twice. Mummy was talking to Mrs Yeo when he stepped into the classroom. Mrs Yeo said something like, “She has to protect herself.”

During recess time, all the new students were tagged with seniors who would teach us how to buy food. The parents stood outside the canteen, pointing everywhere as if we were animals in a zoo. I could not spot my parents. I was tagged with a tall girl who used many words that I did not understand. “I would suggest that.” She pointed at the fried noodles stall.

I bought one plate and one takeaway. The senior asked me why; I told her I was going to give it to my parents. The senior then muttered with a smile, “You’re a fucking girl.”

I later realized she had wanted to say “filial girl”, but could not remember how to pronounce “filial”.

Back in class, I slotted the pack of noodles into my bag. There was no more adult loitering outside the classroom. Before music lesson, when the boy who molested me was talking to the girl on his right, I took out the takeaway and poured the noodles into the open red bag beside his chair.

“The principal scared of me leh. Don’t dare to scold me,” he told me after he had boasted to the other girl. “She said I must not touch girls.”

When our music teacher stepped in, we did the standard greeting. Once we sat down, someone screamed. I looked at the name tag pinned on her pinafore: Her name was Maryline. She sat two seats away from me. She stared at her bag and then began to cry.

Miss Koh rushed towards her. I did not know why Maryline had placed her bag next to my seat earlier. “Did you buy it from the canteen just now?” Miss Koh asked the bawling Maryline. Maryline shook her head.

Cher, Cher,” a busybody behind us raised his hand and said, “I, hor, I see her coming back from recess time with noodles.”

My heart sank when I saw the finger pointing at me. I took a deep breath and anticipated my first cry in the school. Before going to school, I had wondered whether I would walk out of the school alive.

Miss Koh, a middle-aged woman, stared at my name tag. “Valerie, did you accidentally drop the noodles into her bag?”

I tried not to blink. If I were to blink, the tears would come faster. “I don’t know.”

“Valerie, look at me. Valerie!”

My face was boiling hot. It usually felt that way before I cried.

Cher,” the boy who molested me said, “she crying lah. Don’t bully her. It’s not her lah. I don’t like this Mary Line, so I pour noodles into her bag loh. Her name Mary then Mary lah, why Mary Line? And Cher, why you so angry? You hungry and want to eat the noodles arh?”

The tears did not come. But the boy, Michael Cheng, was sent to the principal’s room again: his second visit on his first day of school.

* * *

I was the typical student when I was in Jurong Primary School. I submitted all my homework on time, and went for piano and calligraphy lessons during weekends. My parents flaunted my results to their friends every gathering.

Ling Ling, Angela and I were the “Three Angels” of Jurong Primary School. We had consistently good results, and teachers always wanted us for their events. They were in my class, and Ling Ling was our class monitress. During our primary five camp, whereby all students had to go for a three-day camp, Ling Ling impressed us with her leadership skills on the first day. On the second day, something happened. Once again, Michael was involved.

Michael was still in my class, larking about between lessons, but he sat in front due to his height. Like most boys, his height remained stunted while the girls grew fast.

That day, in the middle of the night, I needed to pee. We had been instructed to wake our buddy up to go to the toilet together. Angela was sleeping soundly; she once mentioned that once she woke up, she would always have difficulty sleeping again. I stood up and broke the rules. After all, the toilet was just steps away.

There was no toilet paper. The boys’ quarters were on level three, and the girls’ quarters were on level four. I decided to go down and grab some toilet paper from the toilet in the boys’ quarters despite the restriction. It will just be three minutes, I thought.

The stairway was well lit. Every step I took echoed, so I tried to tiptoe. As I descended the stairs, a shadow seemed to whizz across the lobby. I recalled the story that one of my classmates had told me. “The school is haunted,” he had said. “If you smell something, run as fast as possible.”

I stopped, paralysed. I regretted not waking Angela up the moment I saw a white figure walking—or floating—at level three.

I closed my eyes and put a hand over my mouth. Then I screamed.

When I opened my eyes, a boy appeared out of nowhere and pounced on the white figure. The white figure landed on the floor with a thump. The boy kicked it twice before turning to meet my eyes. The white figure screamed, then revealed himself: another boy who had donned a white blanket. Ling Ling suddenly appeared beside me. “What happened?” she asked.

I took a closer look. The boy who had donned a white blanket was Jian Man, one of my close male friends. The boy who had attacked Jian Man was Michael. Michael looked up at me. “Don’t scream! You’ll wake up Chers! Don’t sabo Jian Man!” Sabo, in Singapore, means sabotage.

“What happened?” Ling Ling said.

Jian Man had bruises on his arms. He groaned in pain while holding on to the white blanket stained with his blood. Sometimes, when I did not complete my homework, Jian Man would let me copy his. I need Jian Man’s friendship.

“What? What happened?” Ling Ling continued.

“He trying to scare girls lar!” Michael said. He patted Jian Man’s shoulder. “Told you don’t play play liao! You see, Noodles got heart attack now!” Michael had given me the nickname Noodles after the incident on the first day of school.

“Valerie, is it true?”

“Valerie,” Jian Man said in the midst of his groan. It triggered the memories of him passing me his homework. Without him, I thought, I would not have become one of the best students.

“We’ve got to tell the teachers about this,” Ling Ling suggested.

“Wait, no.” Michael went one step up the stairs. “You tell Cher, Jian Man will die! Noodles also—why you come down here? Don’t siao, Ling Ling. We’ve got to protect them.”

“Look at him!” Ling Ling pointed at Jian Man. “He’s injured. We’ve got to tell the teachers. You nearly killed—”

“What happened?” a deep voice cut in. We all kept quiet. As the steps became more pronounced, Mr Cheen, my PE teacher, appeared. We all took deep breaths.

Jian Man looked at me. Then he rolled his eyes. Help me, he seemed to say. Or maybe I seemed to say. I shut my eyes to go through my options. After three seconds, I opened my eyes wide.

“Michael…Michael tried to scare me,” I said, unable to govern my voice and conceal my fear. “Then Jian Man saw him. Michael scolded Jian Man, and Michael beat Jian Man.” I pointed at the blanket beside Jian Man. “Michael used this to cover himself to scare me.”

Michael widened his eyes slowly before scampering towards me. “You lie—”

“Enough!” Mr Cheen said.

Cher, she lie!” Michael yelled. “I trying to—”

“All of you!” The teacher swung his finger at everyone. “Come with me!”

Cher, you must believe me!”

“Michael,” Mr Cheen lowered his eyebrows as he said, “if you have a good track record, I’d love to. Now, we’ll settle everything in the teachers’ room.”

I never forgot the stare that Michael shot me.

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