Stories That Breathe

A Singapore Love Story

Chapter 7

Clementi

Actually, I was the idiot, not him. I spent the time counting the number of perspiring students boarding the buses at the last minute, smiling at working adults reading notes with many graphs and glancing at smiling retirees in sports attire with duffel bags. I realized, whenever a bus came into view, everyone would break into a smile. Some, upon seeing the bus number, would either frown or curse.

“Good morning, Miss Noodles. Nice excuse to skip school, my dear.”

I shivered; not because of Michael’s abrupt appearance beside me, but because of the last two words. Michael had changed into his uniform, tucked out. He was only supported by one crutch. I tried to think of something to say so that I could forget the last two words.

“Tuck in your uniform!” I instructed. In our school, the upper secondary students must tuck in their uniform, while the lower secondary students must not. “We’re late. Very late. Gosh.”

“You can just tell the teachers you can’t board the bus coz it’s full. Or there’s a jam. Or the bus driver rapes you. I’ve used all these reasons before. The teachers don’t believe all my reasons except the last one.” Michael winked.

“My gosh, it’s really very late.”

“Nope. Just nice, go in for the second half of school. It’s going to be recess time soon. Today is half day for both of us.” Michael struggled to sit beside me. “Only bus 98 goes to our school. But during off-peak hours, a bus comes every ten hours.”

Images of my teachers calling my parents’ office haunted me. I wondered what Mr Singh, another teacher in charge of student councillors, would say. I had never skipped school before; the only day I missed school was when I was in secondary two, as I had a high fever. I panicked so much that I spent the entire night asking my friends what the teachers had taught and did all the practice questions despite my throbbing headache.

“I missed my duty.” I blinked rapidly.

“I miss the canteen food,” Michael said. The bus came and Michael raised his crutch. “Great, just when I’m about to light a cigarette. You know, you can summon buses in Singapore. You just need to light up a cigarette, and your bus will come within seconds. Come on, carry me up the bus.”

The bus pulled over with its brakes squealing. I held Michael’s arm and helped him up the steps. The bus driver stared at both of us, as if he was in a rush. After the first step, Michael used his crutch to lift himself up the next step. “Insert your fare card twice,” he said. “I don’t have hand to take my fare card.”

In 1998, we used TransitLink Farecards instead of EZ-Link cards for all bus and MRT rides. We would insert our student fare card into the fare card machine. The machine would then print out a ticket for us. Over ten people were standing in the bus. Michael had to hold his crutch with his right hand and a pole with his left hand. Once we were on the aisle, the bus moved off. I was hoping that someone would give his or her seat to Michael. No one budged.

Oei.” Michael stabbed his crutch at a sleeping teenager’s foot. “Oei, siao eh.” Siao eh, a common term used in Singlish, means “crazy fellow”.

The teenager opened his eyes slowly. After a yawn that resembled an awakening cat, he took a fleeting look around. When he met Michael’s glare, his lips trembled.

“Stand up,” Michael said, “for Singapore.”

The teenager—who could be in his late teens due to his long hair—opened his mouth wide. He then closed it immediately and swallowed.

“Stare what stare? Stand up!” Michael yelled.

Everyone looked at Michael. I tapped his shoulder gently. “Hey, don’t. It’s just a fifteen-minute ride. Can’t you stand for fifteen minutes?”

“Shut up, Noodles.”

The teenager licked his dry lips. He was facing Michael, but his eyes roamed around. Slowly, his whole body began to shiver. Michael looked like he was going to maul the teenager. The teenager looked like he was going to cry.

A few seconds later, the teenager stood up. Michael pointed at the empty seat. I breathed a sigh of relief; if not for the teenager’s fear, we would be in a police station. Before I could say anything, a hand pushed me to the seat. I dropped on the warm seat and tried to look up. Then the same hand pushed my head down, and I realized I was on the empty seat that the teenager had sat earlier.

“The journey is fifteen minutes. Pampered girl like you can’t even stand for one fucking minute,” Michael said. “Just close your eyes and imagine this is your father’s Boeing 747. Just that there’s no seat belt.”

Throughout the fifteen minutes, Michael stood and I sat. That was when I began to develop feelings for this idiot, because I did not say anything but just peeked at him every thirty seconds, like an infatuated girl having a crush on her teacher.

* * *

“Why didn’t you ask about that day?”

That day, after school, I found myself at the “smoking area”. I told myself that, that route to the bus stop could be shorter. However, the bus stop was on the other side. Michael, as I expected, was there. He was not smoking; he was reading a book that he stuffed into his bag the moment I approached him.

“Tuck in your uniform,” I said immediately.

“Stupid rule. You are young so you can tuck out, you are old so you must tuck in. Anyway, this is HDB’s property, not Jurong Secondary School. So far, an HDB officer has not asked me to tuck in my uniform.”

“Don’t be so rebellious. Be a good boy.”

“I was waiting for you,” Michael said.

My heart skipped a beat. I trembled, stopped breathing for seconds and felt like I was going to faint as a rush of blood surged through my brain.

“I can’t take a bus, and I need help. You remember your promise? Can’t be a one-way ticket, right? If not, I’ll have to sleep here tonight.”

I exhaled loudly, relaxed. “Okay, I’m free.”

“Yeah, you’re always free when I’m around.” Michael used his crutch to stand up. “Anyway, I don’t want to go home. I want to go somewhere else.”

“My offer is only from school to your flat,” I thought of my maths homework and said. “Not to somewhere else.”

“Then I’ll sleep here and die here and you’ll be responsible for my death.”

I sighed. “Where do you want to go?”

“A place where ice won’t melt.”

I laughed. “How about Japan?”

“You need to go out more often, Noodles.”

We took a taxi to Jurong East Entertainment Centre. As we walked, Michael just raised his hand when a taxi was on the road. I had no time to reject. The ride was five dollars. Michael did not even bother to check his wallet when the taxi pulled up.

In 1998, Jurong East Entertainment Centre was just in front of Jurong East Community Library. There were several fast-food restaurants on the first level. As it was only a bus ride away from several secondary schools, many students came here after school to hang out. The second level comprised a big arcade and a shop. The third level was interesting, though. There were an ice skating rink and a bowling alley.

Michael brought me to the third level. I had never been to the ice skating rink before. The temperature dropped tremendously when we stepped into the area. The ice skating rink was almost the size of half a football field, with a glass panel as its barrier. Some skaters were skating elegantly, spinning and braking with ease. Many were trying to balance at the perimeter of the rink. We went to one of the seats facing the rink. Michael had initially suggested that we should try skating; however, neither of us had brought enough cash.

“When I was very young, I always told my parents that I wanted to see snow,” Michael started. “My parents told me that there would never be snow in Singapore. I asked them, ‘How about ten years later?’ They told me not to hope for the impossible, and do the possible instead. They promised that they would bring me to a country with snow once they had earned enough money. Because we were a low-income family, going to a country with snow would require us to save for years. I told them that I would work hard and bring them to a country with snow instead. I was just three then.”

“So have you achieved your goal?” I was surprised that someone like Michael set goals.

“I’m only fifteen; how can I earn lots of money? But soon. I’m already working part-time at McDonald’s now. The one downstairs.”

“That explains your results!”

Michael tilted his head to one side. “I told my parents that I would also bring my girlfriend to a country with snow, and my wife too. You know, I’ve over $1,000 in my bank account now. I don’t know about you, but it’s more than most of my friends.”

I did not know how much I had in my bank account then. My parents said that they had bought some endowment plans for me. I just happily took the one hundred dollars weekly allowance from them, and spent them fully on food or books.

“I’m going to use the money to earn interest in banks. Since I can’t bring my parents to a country with snow, I will definitely bring my girlfriend there.”

“Good for you.”

I felt a warm touch on my hand. After a few seconds, I realized Michael had put his hand on top of mine.

“I’ve only $1,000, so I can only bring my girlfriend to an ice skating rink.”

I looked at him. He looked at me.

“That day, when you had a seizure, I broke out of the window to find help. We were on the second storey. I asked myself what I was doing. Then I realized I wanted that girl in the room to survive, because I needed to bring her to a country with snow. That was what happened. I was waiting for you to ask me what happened.”

I felt a drop of sweat on my forehead.

“I…” I swallowed.

“I’ll bring you to a country with snow. Just give me time. And the chance.”

Several images flashed before me. I saw my parents holding hands in shopping malls. I saw young couples kissing each other goodbye. The romance novels I read once a week suddenly materialized into images.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “It’s…too fast.”

I pushed his hand away. I was waiting for him to grab it back; but he stayed at his position and said nothing. Come on, persist! I thought. But he just blinked rapidly.

“Okay then, forget it. I’ll bring Ling Kim here tomorrow and see what she says!”

Ling Kim? “Who is…I…am sorry.”

I stood up. He did not do anything. I continued standing there. He did not do anything. I took a step. He still did not do anything. Then I walked towards the exit, my mind blasting with the five words, He did not do anything!

“Woman,” he said.

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