Stories That Breathe

A Singapore Love Story

Chapter 5

Chinese Garden

“What’s wrong? You achieved your goal. Miss Chee cried.”

As the students went off to tell their friends about the incident, I spotted Michael sitting alone on a bench at the void deck outside the school. I thought he would have gone home, as it had been more than three hours since he stormed out of the classroom.

He sat cross-legged, leaning back with his arms spread to the side. Both he and his bag almost took the entire bench; I had to push his bag to the side to create space for myself. After a few seconds, he reached for a cigarette and lit it: right in front of me; right beside the school; in his school uniform. I never knew he smoked. In Singapore, the legal age to smoke is eighteen. Michael looked like he was in his early twenties when he was not wearing his uniform.

“You know, I’m a student councillor. This is a school uniform.” I pointed at his cigarette pack that he had placed above his bag. “Pall…Mall isn’t the best idea.”

He dragged on a lungful of his Pall Mall cigarette. “I’ll buy Marlboro next time.”

I laughed. It dawned on me that this boy—man—feared nothing.

“The pen cost me forty cents,” Michael said.

I unzipped my bag and passed him the pen that he had thrown at Miss Chee. “So, what’s wrong? You could be suspended for doing what you did earlier. The school rules are created so that when we step into adulthood, we will follow the law—”

“The school rules are created to protect good students like you. The laws are made to protect the rich people. In order to survive, people like me create our own rules. Our own laws. There are two sets of laws in Singapore, and only idiots like you know the ‘legal’ ones. Because they protect people like you, and not people like me.”

“Typical Ah Beng’s talk.” Ah Beng, in Singapore, refers to a hooligan.

“You won’t understand.” He took his cigarette pack and offered me a stick. “If you want to understand, you enter our world. See our laws. If not, don’t comment.”

“I’m a student councillor,” I said.

“The school needs student councillors because of students like me.” Michael emptied his lungs and I coughed. I had, then, seldom come across smokers. “Just like Singapore needs policemen because of criminals. Predators need prey.”

“Twisted logic,” I muttered, trying to breathe through my mouth so that I would not smell the smoky air.

“I don’t respect someone who lives in just one world.” Michael took another long drag on his cigarette and puffed out rings of smoke. “Did Miss Chee say how long I will be suspended? I hope she will just expel me. Sick of studying. Then I can work full-time.”

“What do you mean by living in just one world?”

“You know Mr Kam?” Michael flicked his cigarette away. It hit a column and created a spark. “A long time ago, he joined a gang. He had tattoos. But when he was sixteen, he decided to change his life’s direction. He studied hard. He’s lived in two different worlds before: the world whereby he created his own rules, and the world whereby the world created rules for him. He understands how people feel. I respect someone like him. Not someone who lives in a bungalow since young, exposed only to classical music and Shakespeare, and not to fights and police stations.”

I thought of what Mrs Seah had said earlier in the morning. It’s just not you. I took it as a cue for me to experiment new things. “Oei, Ah Beng, it’s fucking easy. Lighter,” I said, fishing a cigarette out from the cigarette pack. Then I glanced around to ensure that no one was nearby.

Michael smiled for the first time. “Don’t try. If you live in World A, you’ll stay in World A forever. You can’t be in two worlds.” He took the cigarette from my lips and slotted it back into the pack. “You had put the wrong end of the stick in your mouth. If you had inhaled, you would have sucked leaves into your lungs. Don’t even try to enter my world.”

“You said Mr Kam was in two worlds.”

“No, he has crossed over. Now, he’s in one world. And he can never go back to his old world. Destiny determines where we land on. We can only try to change the lane that we are moving on, but never make a turn. That’s how the world works.”

I was quite surprised that an Ah Beng like him was talking about life lessons. “You read often?”

“Work part-time near a library where I nearly killed someone as I was protecting an idiot who did not appreciate my help,” he muttered. “So, you haven’t answered me. How long is the suspension, or is it instant expulsion? If I’m expelled, I may want to try going to Raffles Institution. Or see if Harvard University wants me or not.”

I smiled. “I’m a student councillor. I’ll fight for you.”

“Yeah, fucking big deal. I’ve told you before. You belong to their world. You want to fight for someone in another world? Have you seen Singapore snowing before?”

* * *

I wanted to show Michael that a “good student” like me could help a “bad student” like him too. I offered to teach him maths; and when he agreed readily, I swallowed hard. He said that I would have to follow his schedule. “I’m a very busy man. So if you want to teach me, you better be prepared to lose some sleep.”

He was not suspended from school for throwing a pen at Miss Chee. He was not even punished. Some of my friends said that the principal was afraid of him, for he was from a big gang. I did not care. All I knew was that I could change his mindset—and that he could pass his maths examinations with my help. When I was in those personal development courses and camps, I learnt that if we changed our mindset, we could change our life.

For our first lesson, we decided to go to Singapore Polytechnic. “My friend studies there, and he’s told me that some of the classrooms are always open even if there’re no classes. It’s for students to prepare for the next class.” We would have the whole classroom to ourselves. I told my parents that I was going to study with my female friends instead.

We took a bus to Singapore Polytechnic. I gasped when I stepped into the classroom. It was brightly lit and air-conditioned, with long tables and big chairs. It looked exactly like those classrooms in my personal development courses—not like our cramped, humid classrooms in Jurong Secondary School. “Nice? One day, I’m going to have an office this big. This bright. Then I’m going to treat all my employees to lunch every day.”

“First, you’ve got to pass your maths,” I said. I began to teach him. Before meeting him, I had read his textbook. While he was doing the questions, I read a book. At about eight at night, we heard the door locking.

“What happened?” I asked.

Michael strolled to the door and tried to open it. “I think we’re trapped.”

“Don’t be silly.”

Michael pressed the handle down and pushed the door. It did not budge. “Did you buy insurance?”

“Michael, don’t be silly.”

“Noodles, if we die here, you think we’ll haunt this room?”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Yeah, actually, with me around, you’re always safe,” Michael said.

I blinked. Then it came.

It felt like a broken, beautiful dream. Michael repeated, “I think we’re trapped,” a few times. Then he said, “Did you buy insurance?” at least five times. Every single sentence felt like a replicate; even the expression was the same, as if time had rewound itself. “You’re safe,” he said that almost every few seconds.

I slapped the table. Once. Twice. Thrice. I just kept on slapping the table. Michael rushed towards me, and everything became a blur for a while. Then Michael was sitting beside me, flipping my hair back. “What’s—what’s.”

My lungs seemed to be vacuumed of air. I heard a loud and sharp scream, and the next I knew, I heard Michael asking me if I had bought insurance. I told him no, and I believed that I had died, and wondered whether I would haunt the room. A lightning seemed to strike in the room; right in front of me. When I blinked, I could see yellow lines and dots.

“Oh, man. Gosh, come on. Wake up. Come on!”

When I opened my eyes, I was in a hospital.

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