When I was in secondary three, I was the chairperson representing Red Cross for speech day. That meant I was in charge of my own unit. National Cadet Corps (NCC), another uniformed group, was the Guard of Honour (GOH) for that year. They were the overall-in-charge for the parade.
When we had a meeting, I clutched my hands upon realizing that Michael was the commander for NCC and, therefore, would be the parade commander. As we all sat down, Michael tapped his pace stick—a stick that could be opened to measure short distances precisely—on the floor a few times before saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is not just a normal parade. This is Speech Day 1998: This is the day when VIPs, guests and parents will be around. We can’t, and we won’t, make any mistake. I know NCC should plan everything, but I believe in feedback from the ground. A true leader listens to his men.”
People, especially those from Girl Guides, were biting their teeth. Of all the uniformed groups, only NCC had senior cadets scolding the new cadets in military style.
“This is my parade. Every single step you make must be precise. Accurate. Perfect. If there is even a single centimetre difference in your step, you’ll drop twenty. I don’t care what rank you hold, because I’m the commander and you listen to me. Is that clear?”
“When I ask a question, I expect an answer! Is that clear?”
“No,” I whispered.
“Noodles!” Michael roared almost immediately. “If you have feedback, say it aloud. Don’t talk to yourself. Do you understand?”
“Master Sergeant Michael,” I said, “this is a school, not an army camp. We’ve got Girl Guides, Scouts, NPCC and Red Cross here. I know it’s cool to talk like you’re an army officer, but we’re just here to go through a parade for the parents and guests. We’re not going for a war. So maybe, Encik, we can just talk.” People often address a non-commissioned officer in the army as Encik. I had learnt that from Daddy.
Michael glared at me. “Noodles, you drop twenty now. Now!”
I nearly laughed. “Yes, Master.” I dug into my bag, felt for a twenty-cent coin and dropped it on the floor. It rolled for a metre. Everyone had the same expression: closed mouth with trembling lips.
“Get out of the room.” Michael pointed at me. “Now!”
“I can’t, Master. I’m the chairperson for Red Cross. If I get out, the whole unit goes with me. You said you wanted a meeting, and wanted our feedback. Now you chase me, the commander for Red Cross, out. Are you confused over your decision?”
Michael tossed his pace stick to the side and dashed towards me. I bit my teeth and heard my heart pounding. The moment he grabbed my arm, I slapped him. “Get away from me.”
“Fuck off from my briefing room,” he whispered. “This is an order.”
“I’m sorry, Encik, but we’re in different uniforms. You can’t order me. Moreover, look at my rank and your rank.”
Michael could have been the strongest boy I had known then: He walked fast while dragging me, and no matter how I struggled, I was pulled out of the room.
“Stand here until the briefing is over. Take one step, I’ll make sure you know how hell looks like,” he said before going back into the room.
Throughout the thirty minutes, I was tempted to leave. However, I was worried that it might affect my performance. I stayed rooted at my position until the students walked out of the room with a peculiar look. Most of them strolled towards the canteen. Michael was the last to come out. “How’s the view here, Noodles?”
“Give me all the info.”
“The first rehearsal for the parade is at 3.00 p.m.,” he said. “I want to see the formation. We’re thinking of a fancy drill for the NCC cadets. I’m getting just six of my best cadets to do the drill. Red Cross will just march there. After all, what kind of fancy drill can you all do? Throw bandages?”
“I want Red Cross to perform.”
“Hell, yeah. Maybe White Cross can perform better. NCC has always, and always will be, the best uniformed group in this school.” Michael smirked. “Get your girls to prepare for the fall-out cadets from other units, Noodles. And of course, I’m prepared for the whole unit of Red Cross to fall out. You girls in white are trained to apply suntan lotion, not stand under the sun to march.”
“And you guys in green only know how to stand under the sun to march, and nothing else.”
The grab from Michael was unexpected. In a nanosecond, he had darted forward and I could feel his breath. He pulled my collar towards him and lowered his eyebrows. “Insult me, and I’ll beat you. Insult my men, and I’ll kill you.”
I took a deep breath to steady my heartbeats. Then I whispered, “You guys are a group of sissies.”
“Michael! What are you doing?” a shrill voice said.
I recognized the voice immediately. It was Miss Chee, one of the school’s discipline mistresses. According to a few of my friends, she had dedicated her entire life to scolding students. Though I was a student councillor and she was one of the teachers in charge of councillors, we rarely interacted.
I then did something that sparked everything: I inched towards Michael and kissed his lips. Michael’s eyes looked like they would roll out. He turned to Miss Chee, to me, and blinked a few times in a second. I had never seen a more surprised Michael before.
“Valerie! What are you doing?”
“Miss Chee, isn’t it obvious?” I said. “Boy-girl relationship. Frowned upon by the school, but not banned, right?”
Miss Chee stomped towards us. She was in her forties with a solemn mien. When I was in secondary one, she was as thin as a bamboo stick. When I was in secondary two, her size doubled. That day, she seemed to have been through a tough Trim and Fit (TAF) programme; she was petite like many of the secondary one girls.
“This is totally unacceptable!”
“Come on, Miss Chee. Don’t you kiss your husband?” Michael chimed in as he let go of me gently. “Oops, sorry. I forgot. You’re a virgin.”
This could be the first time that I saw Miss Chee lost for words. She bit her teeth hard. “Both of you. Come to my office. Now!”
“Let’s go, dear,” I said.
“Okay, darling.” Michael winked.
During the journey, I wondered why I had done that. When I did not come out with the answer while we were in Miss Chee’s office, I decided not to pursue it anymore.
* * *
The next day, after English lesson, my form teacher spoke to me privately outside the classroom.
“Is there a mistake?” Mrs Seah was in her thirties and we all respected her. According to our seniors, she would always give additional lessons to her students till midnight when examinations were around the corner. Then she would drive them home, one by one. “I heard the news from Miss Chee. Why not later, before your detention, you have a talk with me first? I don’t believe you would say something like that to Miss Chee. It’s just not you. You’re a model student.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “Miss Chee was right. I’ve got complacent. I’ll reflect during detention.”
After lunch, I went directly to the detention room. Five students walked in looking like they were anticipating a lashing. We would be detained till school closed, from 2.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. At 2.45 p.m., when Michael was still not there, Miss Chee sighed. She had warned us that if she caught anyone sleeping, he or she would be detained for another day.
“Valerie, go to the canteen to look for Michael. Five minutes. Go!”
Before I could do anything, Michael shuffled into the detention room.
“Hi, Miss Chee. Bye!” Michael said and winked at all of us. A few of us smiled.
“You’re late!” Miss Chee’s chair nearly toppled over when she stood up.
“I was shitting. I shitted for exactly fifteen minutes. You don’t believe? Ask my shit. Ask Noodles.”
In my memory, Miss Chee always had one-sided conversations with her students. She would scold and students would nod. “Go sit there!”
“Whatever.” Michael dropped onto the chair beside me clumsily.
“Not a seat beside someone!”
The detention room was an abandoned classroom. The arrangement of the tables and chairs was like in any classroom; the only difference was the lack of a student-designed notice board. Most of the louvre windows were closed as well. Maybe it was to create the feel of a prison cell.
“Wah, Miss Chee, by right you should say earlier!” Michael sneered and winked at all of us again. I pressed my shivering lips tightly together when I caught the joke.
Michael went to sit two seats away from me. He winked at me a few times. I took out my maths homework and thought that being in detention was good: It meant an uninterrupted time to do homework.
The first hour was peaceful until Michael kicked a crushed paper towards me, gesturing to the paper ball. It was scribbled with the words: “Boring. Let’s do something interesting. See how I will make Miss Chee cry.”
I flinched. Miss Chee was loud and sometimes unbearable, but to see a discipline mistress cry was not an interesting sight. When I faced Michael, he shot me a determined look. Then he stared at Miss Chee; and he did not break the stare.
I turned back to my literature text, To Kill a Mockingbird. I had completed my maths homework within half an hour. In To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the characters, a black man, was accused of raping a white woman. When a white lawyer defended the innocent black man, all the white people hated the lawyer. I lifted my head to look at the poor Miss Chee. She was the white lawyer: hated by all for doing her job.
Michael began by dropping his pen a few times. When Miss Chee felt that something was wrong, she said, “Michael, stop spinning your pen!”
“I’m not spinning; it dropped by itself. Must be some spirit.”
“Stop trying to be funny.” Miss Chee stood up. “Try anything, and I’ll make sure your parents will be informed. Then again, given your attitude, I don’t think your parents can do anything.”
Michael’s face blackened. I had seen him angry many times before, especially after a basketball game. Once, he even hit someone in the face. The fight was broken up by another student councillor. However, this time, it was different. It was not the look of merely a punch—it looked like he would pounce on her. As I gathered my thoughts, Michael’s chair overturned and he stood upright.
Miss Chee squared her shoulders.
“Michael, don’t,” I whispered.
Michael flung his pen at Miss Chee. The pen missed Miss Chee, but she still shielded herself with her arms. The rest of us sat up straight with our mouth dropped open and eyes widened.
“How dare you!” Miss Chee yelled.
“How dare you,” Michael hissed. He grabbed his pencil case. Miss Chee ducked; however, Michael did not do anything. He shoved the pencil case back into his bag and burst out of the room.
Miss Chee’s eyes turned red. She put on a defensive stance for a minute, gazing at the seat on which Michael had sat earlier. I felt like pacifying her. When her first tear dropped, she, too, stomped out of the room. The rest of us stayed in the room until 6.30 p.m. without a teacher’s supervision.