My goal for that day was ten maths questions, two English comprehensions and one Chinese composition. I had the whole night to complete them. I should have been able to complete them within three hours; but I lay on my bed instead. I felt like sleeping, but my mind was sharp.
Mummy asked me whether I was sick. I told her no. She said that something was wrong. I told her no. She said if I ever needed anything, I could approach her. I told her no.
Daddy came in at nine. He told me that he had known me for fifteen years, and that day, he could not recognize me. “In love?”
“No, Daddy! I’ll…complete the revision I’ve set for today tomorrow instead. Really. I’m just not feeling that well, I guess.”
“Okay. Anyway, Mummy knew me when she was sixteen, and I was twenty-eight. She was then a young, little girl who did not know anything about love. I had just completed a master’s degree then, and she was an admin assistant in Ah Gong’s company.” Daddy patted my head, like he always did when I was sick. “This pair of eyes, I’ve seen them in Mummy’s eyes before. They’re exactly the same.”
I smiled. I did not probe any further, even though I wanted to know more about their story. I just knew that Daddy came from a wealthy family and Mummy had struggled to put food on the table when she was a teenager. It was love that brought them together.
The next day was the strangest day of my life. For the first time since I went to secondary school, I was not paying attention to the teacher. Once, Mdm Lim called me and I did not hear her. During recess time, I told my classmates that I did not feel well, and would not be eating. I wandered around the school compound and knocked onto Mr Kam.
“What happened?” Mr Kam always wore long sleeves despite the hot weather. He was in his late twenties and could connect well with the Normal (Technical) students. Many girls had a crush on him, for he looked like Andy Lau with his lean build.
I shook my head. Michael had once said that Mr Kam was one of the approachable teachers. Judging from his furrowed eyebrows, I did not concur.
“What’s your next lesson?”
“Your English teacher is Mrs Seah, right? I’ll talk to her. Come with me.”
What? A scolding just for bumping into him? “Mr Kam, I’m truly sorry about—”
“I just want to talk.” That was the first time I saw Mr Kam smiling. “Aren’t teachers supposed to interact more with students?”
I shook my head, then nodded.
Mr Kam tapped my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Valerie. Everyone goes through stages of life. You either avoid that stage now and encounter it later, or you face it now. You want to buy some finger food first before we go for our talk?”
“No.” We went to the teachers’ room, and Mr Kam told me to wait in the pantry. After five minutes, he came in with two cups of Milo.
“When I was thirteen, a group of teenagers said that I was staring at them. They scolded me and led me to an HDB stairway. They were walking angrily. I just followed, for there were at least ten of them. In the stairway, they asked me which gang I was from. I told them I wasn’t from any. Then one teenager showed me his fist and asked me if anyone had wanted to punch me before. I said no. He said sometimes, people would punch me for no reason. If I wanted to survive, I had to join them. I was to give them an answer immediately.
“I thought of my friends who had joined gangs. Everyone was afraid of them. Girls all liked them. And so, I agreed. We had a seventeen-year-old school dropout as our leader. They told me that there was an older leader, but the seventeen-year-old was our immediate leader. Just because I was in a gang, and I was proud to tell all my friends, girls came to me. If they were bullied, I could use my gang’s influence to protect them. When I was fourteen, I had tattoos. I aimed to be the leader of the gang when I was sixteen. That was my goal.”
I always thought that Singapore secret societies had been wiped out by the police. Street gangs merely comprised loud teenagers who ran at the sound of a police siren.
“When I was fifteen, I was caught shoplifting. The police were called in, and they contemplated whether to arrest me or not. They could not contact my parents. Eventually, I was given a stern warning. I went back to my gang. I wondered why they could not protect me from the police. The leader beat me. I told him I wanted to quit. He said I couldn’t, because in the gang, I would have to be beaten severely if I wanted to quit. Guess what I did?”
I was listening so attentively that I was momentarily stunned when he asked. Mr Kam seemed like a decent man, going from RI, RJC and then NUS. In fact, I thought all teachers studied in those top schools.
“I called the police. They helped me. There’s a reason why the laws are created.”
I blinked fast. “Mr Kam, why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I know you’re trying to make a decision. The world wants you to be a perfect girl. You want to step out of that world, yet not completely. I’m telling you that you can be in two worlds, as long as you know what is best for you. I’m asking you to pick up what is best for you in each world. Then live happily.”
“What has that got to do with your story?”
“I thought you’re one of the top students.” Mr Kam winked. It reminded me of Michael. “I’m a friend.”
I tried to connect his story to my feelings. All I could see was a young Mr Kam spewing expletives in school. Then I realized the young Mr Kam looked like Michael. I smiled at that thought. Is Michael going to grow up to be a teacher? How nice it is, to marry a teacher. I shivered at that thought.
“I’m…I’m sorry for bumping into you,” I whimpered then stood up clumsily. “And, er, Mr Kam…do you know who is Ling Kim?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Three days later, when Michael walked through the gates at eight in the morning, I tramped towards him. My partner doing duty with me was reading a book at the other side of the gates and did not notice Michael. Michael no longer walked with crutches, yet he strolled as though he was early for school. “You’re late!” I showed him my watch. “What excuse do you have? You’ve got no excuse! Come with me to the canteen to meet Mr Singh!”
“Ho, hold on, Noodles. What happened to the gentle, crybaby student councillor I know?” Michael pointed to the road ahead. “The road says, ‘Slow,’ so we must slow—”
“No excuse!” With my finger pointed at him, I screamed, “Come! And it’s not funny!”
“Well, you used to laugh at that joke,” Michael said with his hands dangling in mid-air.
“Yeah, relax, man. It’s not like I can’t cum!” Michael pouted.
“I’m already walking, Noodles. Why, you want me to crawl instead? Or run—”
“Why didn’t you persist,” I whispered. I was on the verge of tears. That was the first time I saw Michael after the Jurong East Entertainment Centre incident, and seeing him gave me an inexplicable feeling…as if he owed me something.
“Okay, Noodles, I’m walking. I’m walking.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“Hello, Noodles! Okay, called. Now, let’s go to the general office or canteen to hear my judgement. Am I going to get a life imprisonment or a death sentence?” Michael walked briskly towards the canteen. I stayed rooted. “Hey, come!”
As Michael called for me, a rush of blood raced through my body. Do I have a seizure again? My legs felt weak. I squatted down, my face suddenly burning hot. I blinked once and felt tears dropping from my eyes. I tried not to blink but failed. Each blink brought more tears.
“Come!” Michael said. “Oh shit, what the fuck? What do you want? You’re crying just because I walk too slowly?”
I buried my head between my knees to hide my tears. After about thirty seconds, when Michael kept on prompting me not to cry, I heard a familiar voice. I lifted my head slowly to see Mr Kam beside Michael. Mr Kam said something but I did not catch his words. All I remembered were Michael’s words: “Really! Mr Kam, she cries because I walked too slowly! You can ask her! It’s true! What the hell is wrong with this girl?!”
I was led to the canteen. Mr Kam told Michael to go to his class first. Michael told him that he was late, and he had yet to “face his judgement”.
“Just go to your class first!” Mr Kam commanded. Michael groaned and went off.
Mr Kam then tried to find out why I had cried. I told him that Michael was late and I was angry. I said that I would cry when I was angry. Mr Kam said that if I needed help, I could approach any of the teachers. Then he accompanied me back to my classroom.
According to my friends, Michael had a one-day detention for disobeying a student councillor’s instruction. When I was in class that late morning, Mr Kam told my teacher that he needed to see me. I went out of the classroom and saw Michael sitting on a stairway step with an indifferent look.
“Go, apologize to her now,” Mr Kam instructed.
“Mr Kam, I rather you give me more days of detention.” Michael looked away. He put his hand into his pocket and I thought he was going to take out a pack of cigarettes. He took out his keys instead.
I waved my hands. “Mr Kam, it’s okay. Just let him go.”
“No, if not, he won’t learn from his mistake. Michael, either you apologize now, or I’ll add two more days of detention. Don’t give me extra work.”
“Then I’ll choose the two days of detention. So in total, it will be three days. But let me choose the days, because I need to inform my supervisor.”
“Michael, how many times must I tell you—”
“Mr Kam, I will apologize if I do something wrong. If not, I won’t. I’m just late for school. That’s it.”
“If you don’t apologize, I’ll really add two more days. You have only two options, Michael.”
“Let me choose the dates.”
Both Mr Kam and I stared at the determined Michael. He was looking at the classroom across us. All I was thinking, as Mr Kam led Michael away, was, Is Ling Kim in the classroom across my classroom? Or is she Michael’s colleague at McDonald’s?