In the Shadow of the Red Clock Tower
The stately clock tower of red bricks rises proudly into the vast cerulean and white above. It is a standing joke that the clock tower tells the correct time only twice a day. Somehow no matter what repairs are carried out, the clock stops working within a couple of weeks. Its guardians have given up and so time stands still for everyone who enters the gates in its shadows.
There is a plot of land in front of the clock tower. If you stand there and look upwards, the clock tower is like a phallic erection out of the ancient trees which form a shady canopy of various hues of green. Depending on the time of day, misted rays of sunlight enter the shady arbor and cast shifting colors like jewels in Aladdin’s cavern. The almost bald plot is used as car park and once the piercing sounds of the school bell go off, the place comes alive with rowdy and noisy young boys rushing to waiting cars. At other times, chauffeurs of richer families park their cars in the shade and wait for their young masters, in the meanwhile sleeping in their large comfortable automobiles. But by and large, the plot is like an innocent sleeping lad, dreaming perhaps of adventures in faraway lands.
Although it is a gravel patch, here and there tufts of grass and small wild flowers spring up unnoticed by unobservant eyes. Creepers run up the trunks of the huge trees where ferns sit comfortably on boughs like giant birds’ nests. A squirrel runs along the boughs once in a while in its run-freeze-then-run again manner oblivious to the call of the golden oriole. Once in a while you will see bright yellow feathers like bits of sunlight take flight. The sleepy little plot is a solace from the hustle and bustle of city life in nearby Orchard Road. It is a magical spell that does not force itself on anybody’s consciousness. But it gently seduces everyone who enters.
If you climb the mossy steps and go up to the clock tower, you will step onto a stony path which bends upwards and before you know it, you are standing in front of the metal gates which have rusted at the corners. They open to allow the visitor to enter; you climb uphill and in a minute you are standing directly under the red bricks.
The staff meeting in June was meant to discuss matters concerning the new term which would start in a couple of days. It was at the meeting when new staff members were introduced to colleagues. I was a freshie teacher.
“Last but not least, we have Mr Melvyn Tan who has just completed his teacher training. He is our ex-student and returns to us from University of Melbourne. Some of you who have been with us a long time would remember him as a student, so do help him to settle down.” The voice of the Principal sounded warm and welcoming. Perhaps he did remember this awkward little boy from the past after all.
I saw the faces of a few of my ex-teachers. There was Mrs Lee, my former Literature teacher: Mrs Lee, the matronly teacher with the bulbous nose was still Miss Siew when I was a student. She waved at me and I waved back. Next I saw Mrs Siva, my Science teacher. She had aged considerably but with her white hair and blue sari, she exuded a mature charm. She also waved at me when I responded with a smile. In another corner of the large meeting room was Mr Gan, the discipline master who had taught me Mathematics. He smiled at me and I nodded recognition.
Ah, Mr Steven Gan Siew Meng, the face which brought back so many bitter sweet memories of growing up.
The staff meeting ended promptly at twelve noon. I was brought to my table in the staffroom by Mrs Lee who had welcomed me in a beaming voice laden with the excitement upon seeing an ex-student return as a colleague.
“Here, we prepared this table for you. I am just diagonally across you so if you have any questions or problems, just call and I will come. Don’t worry about the staff meeting….don’t know how much you caught back there.” She giggled creasing small lines around her lipstick red lips. “Even old timers like us,” she pointed at her colleagues around her who nodded understandingly, “it is information overload and the mind switches off after the first ten minutes. No worries, lah…it’s the same every term….blah, blah, blah….” She broke off with the cheeky laugh of someone who had seen it all.
On my table were certain files and documents. There was a brown hard cover record book. It was new but looked rather formidable with pages and pages of instructions and blank tables and forms which were to be subsequently filled in. There was an induction file concerning the do’s and don’ts of teachers and I suppose it spelt out what was professionally expected of me as a new addition to the service. My time table showed that I had been assigned to teach two classes of English language, of which I was to be form teacher of one.
I looked out of the window which was just beside my table. Ten years had passed; not a long time but neither a short time considering the fact that I had been away in a foreign land for so long.
The quadrangle looked the same as so many years before in the noonday sun, as if time had not moved from the time when a dreamy school boy of fifteen looked out of the classroom window at the physical education lessons going on there. Next to the quadrangle was the tuck shop. That also seemed to have stood still in time: the round grey high roof supported by square block pillars stood like a huge insect. I could see the long tables and benches arranged in neat rows and further in the shade were counters where food could be purchased by the hungry boys. Although it was empty now, the mirthful sounds of hungry boys during recess resonated in my mind.
“Melvyn.” A voice startled me from my daydream. It was Mr Gan. He stood casually in front of me in the familiar friendly manner. I stood up immediately. “Sir, it is so nice to see you again.” He smiled. “I see you still can’t get over calling me Sir. You really don’t have to, you know. You are no longer my student. You are now my colleague. Call me Steven or Siew Meng.” He gave me a warm squeeze on my shoulder.
“Anyway,” he said, “I just came over to say…welcome home.”
“Thank you, Sir,” I replied almost instinctively.
Secondary four is a stressful year because at the end of the year, we would have to sit for the ‘O’ level examinations. Most students who hadn’t been serious in their studies suddenly wised up and began preparing. They knew the importance of the national examination to their future educational happiness and would ensure that nothing distracted them from concentrating and hard work.
The year began terribly for me: my parents separated.
They couldn’t have chosen a worse time to do this but I guessed they could stand it no longer. They had slowly grown apart because their careers had taken different paths and working so hard to achieve their positions meant not having time for each other. They never quarreled: it was not their style. But they had become strangers. Not that I didn’t notice. They hardly talked to each other not to mention even having meals together when Dad was in Singapore. Dad was always travelling and Mom was always working late. So when they announced to me that they were officially filing for separation, it did not come as a surprise to me. But still it stung. They tried to make it easier for me. They left the cruel choice of living with one or the other, which in actual fact meant choosing between them, to me. Finally when I couldn’t choose, they told me to stay with Mum. Dad moved out the next day.
If anyone thinks that at the age of fifteen, I was old enough not to feel it, they are wrong.
I felt an emotional tug of war. On the one hand, I was closer to Mum because even though I saw very little of her, she was at least present in Singapore. On the other hand, I had always looked up to Dad. He was my hero who couldn’t do anything wrong. Although he was hardly in Singapore, I felt a certain closeness to him. It was unfair that I had to choose between them – I wanted them both.
I became moody and withdrawn as I started the school year.
The first time I took notice of him was during his physical education lesson.
He was playing basketball in the quadrangle which was about a couple of yards away, beneath my classroom on the second floor. I happened to be sitting by the window and the Science lesson wasn’t exactly very engaging. Mrs Siva was talking about the digestive system and pointing now and again to the big chart of the human innards which I found vaguely revolting. Enzymes somehow didn’t resonate with a dreamy fifteen year old. The thump, thump, thump of the ball caught my attention and I turned to look at the dozen of Pre-University boys playing there.
Suddenly I saw him grab his tank top and then pulled it off. His broad shoulders glistened with sweat in the early morning sunlight. I saw him wipe himself with the tank top then flinging it out of the court, his taut toned chest accentuating his well-defined body. He continued playing and with each dribble and bounce of the ball, he flexed his solid muscles. Then he stood still for the shot. He bent his knees and like a panther waiting to spring into action, he tightened his back and arm muscles. His right wrist snapped forward effortlessly in a burst of energy and off flew the ball. I held my breath. The ball flew in a curved trajectory and went straight into the basket. It was followed by a round of congratulatory applause of all the other players.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
“Melvyn, what are you looking?” Mrs Siva’s stern voice broke the silence of the class. I turned around to see all eyes fixed on me. I must have blushed because I felt my blood rushing upwards.
“Pay attention then. The lesson is in here, not outside.” She sounded firm.
The lesson continued and I controlled myself but digestive systems and what-not didn’t register in my mind after that.
Steven Gan Siew Meng
I was the second batch of students that Mr Gan was teaching. He was a twenty-five year old Mathematics teacher, fresh from teacher training so he was hardly older than his students.
Now ten years on, he had still not lost his youthfulness but maturity had given him a charm and confidence that I found very endearing. His short crew cut flanked his masculine face. When he smiled, his eyes creased into two long slits and his cheeks moved upwards accentuating his ruddy complexion. Nice white teeth would show between thin lips which ended in shy little dimples on each side.
Mr Gan invited me for lunch on the first day of school.
“How have you been all these years, Melvyn?”
“Well, Sir. You know I went off to Melbourne immediately after NS. Remember you sent me off at the airport?”
“After I graduated in Liberal Arts, I did my teacher training and here I am.” I told him what was obvious and he listened patiently.
I remember the first time I saw Mr Gan. He was in a crisp white long sleeved cotton shirt which he rolled up to his elbow. He was wearing khaki cotton pants and brown leather shoes. He looked composed and comfortable as he began with mathematical problems and solutions on the blackboard. Mathematics was really my weakest subject and after the first ten minutes, I was really lost in the maze of sine and cosine.
Mr Gan was also the discipline master. Unlike Mr Kumar who wielded the cane and a strong discipline style, he preferred a non-confrontation approach. He was gentlemanly and hardly ever raised his voice but when he put his mind to something, no student ever got away. At first, it became a free-for-all as word spread like wild fire that Mr Gan was a wimp. However, in a couple of months, offenders including recalcitrant ones decided they better change as Mr Gan wore them thin by his long talking sessions when misbehavior was caught. Rowdy delinquent behaviour was reduced and life went back to normal; word had it that Mr Gan was no push over. In his radical approach, this new discipline master had brought a new era of compassionate tough discipline into the school.
I was failing all my Mathematics tests. I buried my head in the sand hoping that nasty things would just go away by themselves. In actual fact, I really didn’t know what to do about it.
What happens when a boy reaches puberty? In addition to physical changes, emotionally he also experiences many different things.
I was a pimply youth of twelve when I experienced my first wet dream. It was more embarrassing than scary. One moment I was asleep and the next I awoke to a stickiness in my underwear. I had to quickly wash my underwear in the bathroom before anyone noticed. I had not been prepared for it. Even if my father had been around which he wasn’t most of the time, I don’t think I could talk to him about it. He wasn’t that open as a father and I wouldn’t have known how to broach the subject.
I didn’t have that many close friends whom I could talk to. Anyway they didn’t seem to have the problem which I was having. And so the only option open to me was to go the library.
The school library was on the fourth floor of one of the classroom blocks. I chose to go there after school when I knew not many people would be there. The bespectacled librarian at the counter eyed me suspiciously as I tried to walk in as nonchalantly as I could. There were a couple of boys doing their homework at the long tables. I pretended to walk among the shelves housing all the fiction books and then when I felt that no one was watching, I sneaked to the self-help section.
Looking through I found a book on Growing Up. I sat on the floor in the corner where I knew I wouldn’t be seen and began flipping through the pages. I turned to the chapter that talked about puberty. There among the pages, I saw the answer to what I had experienced. A few more pages and my eyes widened as I began the section under Masturbation. The day marked the beginning of another phase in my life. I no longer had any wet dreams; another pre-occupation had taken over.
Michael Moo was a star player in the school’s A Division basketball team. I found that out by doing a little bit of sleuthing. I was obsessed with him after seeing him play that morning during Mrs Siva’s class.
He was a Pre-University one student, one year older than me. He had performed very well in his ‘O’ levels and was now a prefect of the school in addition to his sporting prowess.
I began looking out of the window every Tuesday morning during Mrs Siva’s class in the hope that I would catch a glimpse of him playing. I was careful not to be caught doing so by Mrs Siva who was strict but sometimes can be a bit too engrossed in teaching to be able to pay attention to forty odd pubescent boys. Whenever she turned to write something on the blackboard, I would steal a look at the quadrangle below. Sometimes I would see him running around in a game but sometimes I would be disappointed because he didn’t appear.
I had swimming lessons at the school pool every fortnight.
I had just finished the lesson and was going into the changing room to shower with the rest of my classmates. The changing room had lockers when you first enter. In the middle were benches where boys could place their clothing when changing. If you walked to the end of the lockers and turned left, you would see a whole row of about ten shower cubicles. I walked towards the last in my trunks with a towel draped over my left shoulder. As I passed the second last cubicle I was surprised that the door was wide open and in the cubicle totally naked and soaping himself was Michael. When he saw me standing petrified, looking at him, he grinned at me sheepishly and with two open hands gestured in a down movement as if he was saying, “what-you-see-is-what-get”. His unabashed attitude shocked me and I quickly rushed into the empty last cubicle and closed the door. I pulled down my trunks and felt the gush of water fall on my body as I turned the faucet on.
“Wah lau eh, Mike….whatcha doing in there, man? So long…..don’t be naughty, okay?.” I heard a teasing voice in the distance and then the sound of gushing water stopped in the next cubicle. “Fxxx you lah. Dirty minded bastards, all of you.”
I realized at that moment that I had hardened.
The next time I saw Michael was at the bus stop. I was waiting for the bus to go home when I saw him walking towards the bus stop. My heart skipped a beat as I saw him looking at me but I averted my gaze so that I could pretend that I didn’t know him.
He sat down on the bench next to me and roughly dumped his canvas bag on the ground in front of him. I looked at the ground fearing that I would do something stupid like talk to him.
“You are Melvyn, aren’t you?”
I could have died on the spot; he was talking to me. I turned and looked shyly at him and nodded in a silly awkward kind of way.
“Well, I’m Michael….Michael Moo….My friends call me Mike and sometimes Moo Moo. I’m in Pre-U one, Pure Science.”
I nodded mindlessly, not knowing what else to do.
“You are taking your ‘O’s this year, right?”
I nodded again.
“If I didn’t know you I would think that you are dumb.” He laughed heartily, not in a mocking way but in rather friendly way.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude….it’s just that I am surprised to find you talking to me.”
“But isn’t that what you would have wanted? I caught you looking at me from the window of your classroom. I first noticed because I saw a light flashing from your window one day…..must have been a reflection from your watch or something…..but from that time onwards, I would always spy you looking at me now and again from the corner of your eye.”
Like a cornered animal, all I could say was ‘sorry’.
“Well since you wouldn’t take the initiative, I thought I would. Anyways, I would be taking the same bus with you from now on. I just moved to the block behind yours.”
“Oh.” I was moved by his frankness and confidence which made me blush even more self-consciously.
Well, the bus came along and both of us got on.
We got off at the same bus stop and when I reached my block, I said goodbye and watched him walk towards his block whistling a tune.
Limp Wrists and All
Adrian Kwek was in my form class and sat right under my nose. He was the most flamboyant person I had ever met. Not only was his speech exaggerated, his mannerism was both loud and screaming for attention. His classmates treated him as a curiosity but I guessed he didn’t mind it. Every time he acted up which was quite often, the class would roar with laughter and sometimes, there would even be applause. I felt that he was basking in all the attention he was getting.
He was ultra slim and I kept having this thought that I would be able to circle his waist with two hands outstretched and my thumbs would meet in front and my first fingers at the back. He seemed incapable of standing straight and his hands would fling wildly when he was trying to make a point. Sometimes he would break into a dance; at other times, he would pretend that he was a singer holding a microphone. It was sometimes difficult to carry on my lessons when I was trying to stifle laughter at his antics.
I didn’t know what to do and so I sought help from Mr Gan.
“Sir, do you know Adrian Kwek from my class?”
“Adrian Kwek Choon Seng? Kwek with a ‘Kw’? Yes, I do. Why?”
“I am becoming increasingly distracted by him in class.”
“Is he misbehaving?” He looked at me with concern in his eyes.
“Not really. But, Sir, I feel that he is an attention seeker. You know….his….his effeminate ways? Limp wrist and queenly behavior? He is good as a stress reliever and the class seems to accept him but when he overdoes it, it distracts me so much I can’t carry on.”
“I see,” He responded calmly, “you know about his background?”
“No.” I shook my head.
“He’s an only child. His parents are hardly around as they travel quite a bit…..just like your dad.”
I winced. So Mr Gan remembered.
“I guess he feels neglected and lonely at times so maybe that’s his way of getting attention.”
“So what do you suggest I do?”
“Have a word with him and let him know how you feel? Then just carry on as if nothing had happened. Ignore him when he tries his antics but pay attention to him when he behaves.”
“Sir, do you think he is….he is….?”
“Gay? Go on say it; no need to be embarrassed by the term. You of all people should not feel this way.” I felt like a chided child.
“And so what if he is? Anyway it is too early to tell: he is only fourteen…”
Michael Moo Eng Keong
Michael lived with his widower father in the opposite block separated from mine by a grass slope. I lived on the eighth floor while he lived on the tenth. From the window of my room I could see the corner of his apartment unit.
After the first meeting at the bus stop, I began to relax and warm up to the belief that he was offering genuine friendship. I found that we had some things in common other than the fact that he was a sportsman and I was a couch potato, and he was doing well in school and a leader while I was a gawky little boy who was struggling with my studies and so many other problems.
Mum was hardly home so Michael came over almost every day. I found out that like me he was quite a romantic. We both loved sentimental songs like The Way We Were, The Rose, Alone Again Naturally and If. Our favourite was Moon River. When Breakfast at Tiffany’s was broadcasted on TV, both of us watched it together.
Both of us also loved to take long bus rides. We got up the bus at Queen Street. The journey took us up Rochor Canal, then Bukit Timah Road. We loved to gawk at the mansions along the Sixth Avenue stretch and the Bukit Timah race course. The bus took us further up to Beauty World in the shadow of Bukit Timah Hill then up to the tenth mile. As the bus went up further and further, the scene became greener and greener and fewer and fewer housing and residences dotted the landscape. We would arrive at the Kranji War Memorial then Woodlands. Just before we arrived at the customs and the causeway, we would hop off the bus and then have a meal at a Woodlands hawker centre. Then it would be a bus trip back to town again. On these trips we would share the music from a pair of earphones plugged into a red Walkman.
The third thing that we liked to do together was to go to the beach. It wasn’t exactly to swim because I didn’t like the sticky salty feeling on my skin which made me break out in rashes. But he would as he didn’t mind it. Then we would just sit by the beach and listen to the birds on the casuarina and coconut trees and the lap-lap-lap of the waves rushing up to shore.
We liked to go the beach at Somapah. It was a long walk along a coconut tree lined road. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we would hitch a ride from a passing lorry. We would climb onto the back and stand up holding the railings. As the lorry sped down the empty road, we would feel the wind beat against our faces and blow our hair backwards. We would jump off at a kampong and then cut across clusters of attap houses to the right of some holiday bungalows of wealthy families in the shade of casuarinas. We were met with chickens running helter-skelter in fright as we walked along the sandy paths, returning to their oblivious up-down-up-down peck at the ground for worms and such when we had passed as if they had forgotten the fright we had just given them.
At the edge of the kampong was the beach. When we came out from under the last coconut tree, a long stretch of unspoiled beach stretched in front of our eyes.
I would find a spot under a coconut or casuarina tree and look at the wide expanse of sky and sea. The occasional seagull flew overhead and under the sun it looked like a silver ball with wings gliding here and there, once in while swooping down to gently touch the waves and then soaring up again into the sky above. Ocean liners dot the horizon like little decorations on a clothes line.
Michael ran into the coming waves and jumped around in the glistening waters, going up and down excitedly like a child. Once in a while he would dive into the shallow waters and resurfaced moments later, his hair flattened by the salty water that rolled off onto his beautiful taut body. Then he ran to me and I offered him a soft drink which he took gratefully. He lay down on the grass next to me and placed his hands behind his head as a pillow. I enjoyed such moments of closeness and I knew that he did too.
Term two started without much fanfare. Mid-year examinations were to be held so the class was shrouded in a tense atmosphere. I wasn’t doing very well especially in Mathematics. One day, Mr Gan told me to see him after school. Although I more or less knew that it was coming, it still felt like doomsday to me.
“You have not passed a single test last term.” There was no reproach in his voice, just concern.
I bowed my head, not knowing what to say.
“Examinations are in two months’ time. You know that don’t you?”
I nodded sheepishly.
“Well, we may not be able to do much but I would like to give you extra help after school.”
It would spoil my plans of spending all my afternoons with Michael. I looked at him unwillingly.
“Postpone all your plans. Nothing is more important than getting through this year and the mid-year is a good gauge of where you are right now.” It looked like he was not going to change his mind so I nodded reluctantly.
The remedial was going to start immediately every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for an hour and a half. I had to tell Michael.
“I didn’t know you were not doing well in your studies,” he said with a look of concern in his eyes.
“I didn’t want to burden you with my problems.”
“Hey, we are buddies aren’t we? Okay, let’s see….Mr Gan is going to help you with your Math. So I will help you with Science…how about that?”
And so for the rest of the term, I was tutored by Mr Gan on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons while Michael helped me with my Science on Tuesday and Thursday nights after basketball practice.
Mid-year exams came and went quickly. I had improved in my grades but even with that, I only managed an aggregate score of twenty-three. If I did not improve more by the end of the year, I would not be able to continue my education.
Mr Gan asked me to see him.
“Don’t be disappointed with your results,” he said kindly, “you have already improved. Keep on working at it and you should be able to do even better at the end of the year.” He was right.
Michael took me out for dinner that night. He said it was to show encouragement.
I was beginning to feel that I would not be able to carry on without him. I decided I would tell him my feelings.
Adrian Kwek Koon Seng
I dreaded meeting Adrian. It was not so much that I was afraid of him. It was just that confrontations always made me uncomfortable. I didn’t have the natural skills or experience which Mr Gan possessed.
Adrian appeared before me that afternoon after school. He was as usual standing in an affected manner. I told him to take a seat not only so that I won’t appear so harsh but also because I hoped that sitting down would control a little of his flamboyant mannerisms.
“You know why I asked you to see me?”
He cocked his head. “No.”
“Well, it is like this. Your behavior in class has been rather disruptive.”
He looked at me, puzzled.
“I didn’t do anything, Sir.”
“It’s not so much what you did but how you behave. Let me see how to put it. Remember how the class would roar with laughter, each time you said something?”
“Well, I believe you mean to clown around to entertain them.”
“Is there anything wrong with that?” Adrian looked at me quizzically.
“Well, what can I say?…I find it difficult to concentrate after what you do.”
“Oh,” he said softly.
“Could I ask you to avoid doing it so often?”
I was beginning to see tears forming in his eyes.
I didn’t want to press further and so I just told him that everything was still okay…nothing had changed and I still appreciated him as a student.
I thought it was all over. Adrian no longer tried his antics in class anymore. However, I also sensed that he was ignoring me. During my lessons he would look right through me as if I wasn’t there.
I guess I didn’t handle it well enough.
I went back to Mr Gan for help.
“Have patience,” Mr Gan told me, “Give him time to get over it. Then talk to him as a friend without any agenda and win him over slowly.” Wise words but difficult to do especially for an impatient person like me.
The Room in the Red Clock Tower and Confessions of Love
Circular stairs lead up to a room in the red clock tower. It is an empty room. Nobody goes up there even if anyone knows or remembers that it is there. It could be that there are rumours that the clock tower is haunted. The nature of rumours is that it becomes reality in the minds of people. Slowly no uninformed eye even knows that behind a divider exist the stairs.
They say that curiosity kills the cat. But it was curiosity that sent me exploring the clock tower and discovering the stairs and finally the room.
One day after school, I asked Michael whether he believed in ghosts. He shook his head without much thought.
“Then you want to come with me somewhere?” I made it sound like a challenge.
I brought him into the deserted room in the clock tower. There were louvers on all four walls letting in a fair bit of sunlight. From there, we could spy on the outside world unnoticed.
“Wow…this place is really cool. When did you discover it?” Michael sounded impressed.
“Oh, just bored and curious….so wandered around,” I laughed.
We sat down on the dusty floor and I pulled out my Walkman. I pressed the ‘play’ button and Moon River flowed into our ears through the earphones we were sharing.
Two drifters off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
We’re after the same rainbow’s end
Waiting round the bend……
I rested my head on his shoulder. He responded by leaning his head against mine. I felt his hand touch mine and I responded by holding his.
“I have something to confess,” I whispered.
He didn’t move but I knew he was listening.
“I love you.”
He didn’t say anything but turned and kissed me lightly on my forehead.
“Does it mean it is okay with you?” I asked needing to reassure myself.
“Silly goose…what do you think?”
He got up and pulled me to my feet. He looked into my eyes. Then he embraced me and put his lips on mine and kissed me passionately. I could feel my pulse racing as I melted into his arms.
Unlike in the past when I was a student, teachers ate together with students. Normally I avoided the recesses because I knew the tuck shop would be crowded with hungry and noisy boys.
One day, I had a full morning and was overcome by hunger pangs during recess. Reluctantly, I went down, bracing myself for the crowded tuck shop. After I got my food, I sat at a corner of the tuck shop and was just about put a wanton into my mouth when from the corner of my eyes, I saw Adrian.
Four Secondary three boys had walked up to him. One of the boys offered him an ice cream cone. “Here, this is from us, boys.” The boy emphasized the word ‘boys’. He winked at Adrian and mouthed him a kiss. The other three boys crowded round Adrian and smiled menacingly at him. There was sudden silence in the area around them as everyone began to realize what was going on. They were waiting to see Adrian’s response. I was also waiting.
I could see that Adrian was trembling. He kept quiet and lowered his head. Seeing no response, the boy who had offered him the cone signaled to the rest of his gang to leave. Before he left, I heard him call Adrian a faggot.
Should I have done anything? Would I be identified as siding with someone obviously not accepted by many? Would they question my motive? Maybe I shouldn’t because really the boys didn’t do anything obviously against school rules?
These questions flooded my mind and gnawed at my conscience.
Two weeks later, another incident happened.
It was after dismissal and I was walking to my car intending to go home. I saw a crowd just outside the tuck shop. The crowd had formed around a group of boys and Adrian was running to and fro, from one boy to another. The boys were tossing and throwing a bag to each other and Adrian was obviously trying to get it. I immediately realized what was happening: the boys had snatched his bag and playing catch with it.
The crowd cheered and roared with laughter each time the bag was caught after flying through the air.
I froze in my tracks….should I intervene?
“Hey,” I shouted, “stop.”
All eyes suddenly turned to me.
“Give me the bag.” My tone was firm.
The last boy to catch the bag walked guiltily towards me, dragging the bag along.
“You boys know what you are doing? What would happen if you damage the bag? It’s not yours; are you prepared to buy a new one for him?” I pointed at Adrian who was panting.
“I will not allow bullying, you hear?” I felt I had to add this to clarify my stand.
A couple of weeks later, after the recess ended, Chong Yu Meng, a timid little student came looking for me at the staffroom.
“Sir, Sir….I think you better go with me to the student toilet on the third floor. Adrian….Adrian Kwek is in trouble.” He sounded scared.
I went immediately. The toilet was empty because recess was over. I walked in and heard sobbing in one of the cubicles.
I opened the door of the cubicle and there inside was Adrian. He was completely naked and I could see the letters G A Y in toothpaste plastered over his groin. His cloths were soaking wet in a puddle on the floor.
“Oh my god!” I couldn’t help exclaiming in shock at the sight.
Adrian was sobbing uncontrollably.
“What happened?” Immediately I realized that it was pointless asking. He was unable to answer.
“Help him clean it off and look after him,” I ordered Yu Meng who was cowering in the corner.
I ran back to the car, grabbed my sports bag which I had placed in the boot because I was going to the gym later.
I ran up the stairs and returned to the toilet. Yu Meng was standing and looking timidly into the cubicle. He had cleaned off the toothpaste with toilet paper which I could see floating in the toilet bowl.
I unzipped the bag and took out my T-shirt and shorts.
“Here, put these on,” I said to Adrian.
He was still trembling.
“You help him,” I ordered Yu Meng.
While he was helping Adrian put on my clothes, I called Mr Gan on my hand phone. Fortunately, he was not in class for lessons and he came immediately.
Mr Gan told Yu Meng to go back to class and not to say anything. Both Mr Gan and I consoled Adrian and after a while, he calmed down.
This was the first time I had witnessed first-hand how cruel bigotry and homophobia can be and kids are no angels.
A School Divided
Mr Gan and I reported the incident to the school administration. After investigation and the culprits found, their parents were called up and they promised that their sons would not try anything like that in future under the threat of expulsion. Each of the ten boys was given five cuts of the cane in their classes. Although it was a hush-hush-on-a-need-to-know basis, the whole thing nonetheless spread, dividing the school into two different camps of view. Among the students some felt that Adrian had asked for it, others felt that nothing deserved such bullying.
Among the staff there was also much discussion.
“He’s so sissy. Even I can’t stand him.” It was Miss Lucy Teo, a pretty Mathematics teacher.
“Yah, there have been students like him before. They are usually easy targets for bullying but never this bad,” said Mrs Siva, adjusting the shoulder end of her sari.
“Deserves it, if you ask me. Attention seeking so that’s the outcome,” laughed Miss Teo.
“He’s so young. The attack will totally traumatize him,” Mrs Khoo, the school counselor said from a corner of the staffroom as she walked over to the group.
“But you know we are a conservative country. All these awful western influence will destroy the very foundations of our nation. A normal family is still what is basic to us.” Miss Teo who was engaged to be married at the end of the year sounded disturbed.
“Why? You are scared your future children will turn out gay? No lah, if you and your husband keep the family warm and loving, nothing like that would happen. Only dysfunctional families have gay kids.” Young Mr Paul Lee joined in the discussion as he sat on the edge of Miss Teo’s table.
“Human beings are so degenerate and sinful. Too much liberalism from the West and see what happens?” Mrs Wong, a rather religious middle aged lady pronounced rather arrogantly.
“But still no one has a right to bully them no matter what,” Mrs Khoo, spoke with the voice of reason.
“Aiyah, they are just boys lah. We do worse things in the army and, and…remember the ragging we had when we first entered the university? Royal flush and all that?” Mr Lee spoke with a certain cheekiness in his voice.
“Do you people remember Shawn from three years ago? Think he is in NS now. He used to be teased all the time. I saw it a couple of times but I really didn’t know whether I should intervene or not. So I just left him to deal with his own problems. A bit embarrassing for me. I mean they weren’t exactly breaking any school rules as it was just verbal teasing,” said Mrs Siva.
I knew I should say something. I obviously felt that the bullies should be punished but on the other hand, like Miss Teo, I had found Adrian an embarrassment.
“Gay bashing, homophobia, teenage angst, or whatever you might call it, bullying is bullying.” The voice was sharp and firm. All eyes turned to look at the person. It was Mr Gan who was sitting quietly all this while at his table listening to the discussion.
“I don’t care whether effeminate students bring it upon themselves or not, and I don’t care whether boys will be boys or not….wrong is just wrong. This case may have come to rest but there are other students out there who are still capable of bullying the weak and those who still live in that fear.”
Before anyone could respond, the bell announced the change of periods and all the teachers dispersed for class.
While all the dissension and discussions were going on, we had quite forgotten about the victim.
Adrian had to see a counselor and subsequently a psychologist. His parents transferred him to another school in the hope that they could put this episode quickly behind them.
The last we heard was an attempted suicide. He survived. Nothing else was heard and the gossips died down as they normally do. Everything returned to normal; business as usual. It was like we believed that another situation like this will never happen again.
“You are so brave. Really I feel that you are so brave standing up for the bullied,” I said to Steven across the restaurant table. I had grown very close to him, having tea with him at a nearby Tudor style restaurant at least once every week. I guess I saw him as my mentor who helped me with work problems which bugged me.
He put his cup of tea down in its saucer. “Why do you say that?” he said with a faint smile.
“Because you did what I was afraid to do. I felt the same way as you but taking sides in that kind of discussion has its downsides for me.”
What does he know? Did he know the real reason why I was uncomfortable about participating in the discussion? Did he know it came too close to home for me?
I never found out because his next question to me shocked me.
“What happened to you and Michael?”
“Huh, who?” I felt a sinking feeling hoping that it was not what I was thinking.
“Michael Moo. You were both an item, remember?”
I swallowed hard before saying, “Sir, how did you know about Michael?”
“Remember the clock tower when you were still a student?”
My heart sank deeper.
“I saw you and Michael going up to the room above and, and….”
That was so many years ago. I had always thought nobody knew.
But Steven knew all along; he did.
“I was curious about what both of you were up to. I had been observing that you boys were spending lots of time together although I didn’t think much of it at that time. And I followed you up the stairs without your knowledge. At first I thought you both just wanted a quiet place when I saw the two of you listening to your Walkman. But when I was about to leave quietly, I heard you confess your love to him. I knew at that moment that it was more serious than just friendship. I saw what happened after that although both of you didn’t realize that I was there.
“It was difficult for me after that. I was thrown into a moral dilemma. Should I tell the school admin? Should I refer both of you for counseling? Should I tell your parents?”
“Why didn’t you tell?”
“Two reasons. Firstly, you were so young and I felt that if you were not, you know, gay….you will get over it. Secondly, I felt that everyone would most likely over-react and life would be miserable for both of you from then on. I decided to let things be.”
“Thank you, Sir,” I said furtively, “but why did you choose to tell me now?”
“We’ll it’s been many years after and I feel that you would know by now what you want,” he said matter-of-factly. “So,” he continued, “are you gay?”
Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would be confronted with a question like that. Would it get me into trouble? Did I trust Steven enough to be honest? Would it destroy my friendship with him?
Questions, questions, questions….the awful thing about it is that I couldn’t answer.
All Good Things Come to an End
Michael and I had a wonderful time together. He continued doing well in his studies and basketball; I made it into Pre-University. We spent a lot of time together in my home when we were not out on long bus rides or at the beach. Mother worked late every night and she had begun dating so her Saturdays and Sundays became occupied as well. She explained to me her situation and was surprised that I took it so well.
Michael went into Pre-University two and began preparing for his ‘A’ levels. We were still together most of the time but most of the time we were together, he would be studying. He even stopped basketball practices. I understood the stress he was under so I just encouraged him and took care of him. I would make nice desserts for him in the kitchen when he was studying in the living room. Then we would eat the desserts together.
I couldn’t be happier and I knew that he was too. We were in a world of our own.
He sat for his ‘A’s at the end of the year while I sat for my end of year examinations. I was promoted to Pre-University two while he had to wait for his results to be released at the beginning of the following year.
In the meanwhile, he enlisted for national service. I saw him off at the Central Manpower Base in Dempsey. His father was there too. I had been to Michael’s house several times so his father knew me as his son’s best friend.
Michael came home after a three-week compulsory confinement during his Basic Military Training. He had become darker, the effect of training under the Tekong sun almost every day making his toned body even more appealing. He had a military crew cut giving him a boyish look. Although the change was quite dramatic, I knew that he was the same Michael when I met him at Changi terminal to welcome him back. His father was not there, having gone to Malaysia on a business trip.
We went to his home by taxi. By the time we arrived, it was about eight in the night. We bought a meal of roast chicken and potato salad. I cooked rice and we had a simple meal. I could see that he was hungry as he attacked the food ravenously. I knew that he most probably didn’t quite enjoy army food and in my heart, I promised that each time he came back, I would have a feast ready for him.
He went for a shower after that and when he came out, I told him that I was going home.
“Don’t go..please” he pleaded. “Stay with me tonight. My dad would not be home and I need you.”
I called my Mum to tell her that I would not be home after which I took a shower and changed into his clothes. By the time I got to bed, he was already sound asleep. I lay down beside him and studied his innocent sleeping face and at that moment such a sense of happiness and gratitude came over me that I felt tears rolling from my eyes and wetting the pillow under my head.
I felt Michael move his hands and place them over me. Slowly he lifted himself and was on top. I responded. Softly I whispered into his ear, “I’m yours” and kissed him lightly on his cheek. He tightened his grip on me and after that it was sheer abandonment. We were like two halves of yin and yang.
Two and a half years went by quickly. Michael had been awarded a scholarship to study in the States. I was in national service. I knew that Michael would be leaving Singapore for a few years if he were to go for his scholarship. I was hoping that he would turn it down but I knew that I would be selfish if I were to ask him to. I waited with bated breath, wondering what he would finally choose to do.
He decided to go.
He told me one weekend when we were having supper after a movie. I wished him well; what else could I say? That I would miss him terribly and would not want him to go? I couldn’t say it. He asked me to wait for him; he promised that he would come back as soon as possible. He was planning to fly back during his summer vacations and I cheered him up by saying that I would take leave and fly there when I could.
And so the airport became our parting place. I didn’t know that it was the beginning of the end of our relationship.
Early winter in San Francisco is lovely. The cool morning air with the warm sunshine invigorates the body and the spirit. I arrived there in the late morning after an overnight flight. I didn’t tell Michael that I was coming, intending it to be a surprise so I took a taxi from the airport to his flat in Berkeley.
From the address, his apartment flat was on the third floor of a charming red brick building with creepers climbing up its side wall. I took the lift and found the apartment just diagonally opposite the lift landing.
I rang the doorbell but there was no reply. Then I noticed that the door was slightly ajar. Obviously Michael had been careless. I pushed the door open and walked into the living room which was rather dim as the heavy drapes were blocking out most of the Californian sunlight. It was slightly parted in the middle, letting in a little light which was enough for me to see when my eyes adjusted to the dimness. The living room was quite messy. Three empty bottles of wine lay randomly on the carpeted floor. It looked like Michael had been drinking a lot the night before. I picked up the bottles and placed them on the coffee table beside empty squashed and flattened cigarette packets.
A door which presumably led to the bedroom was open. When I stood at the door and looked inside, it was pretty dim, lighted just by a pale nightlight. I stepped in. A large king-size bed occupied the middle portion of the fully carpeted room. Directly across was a wide window; the blinds were down and whatever sunlight could get in cast thin white lines on the walls of the room. There was the outline of a man on the bed and I could hear his deep regular breathing. I looked at him in the semi darkness; it was Michael. I recognized his naked body. He was sleeping on his tummy, a wine bottle at his side. I moved forward. “Michael,” I called his name softly, not wanting to shock him. “Michael,” I said a second time because he did not respond, this time a little louder. The body stirred slightly. “It’s me, Melvyn, Michael.”
Michael suddenly opened his eyes.
“Mel….Melvyn. Wha…what are you doing here?” He sat up on his naked butt and shook his head as if trying to shake off his drunken stupor.
“I came in this morning…didn’t tell you because I wanted to surprise you.” I laughed.
“Oh…oh…good, good. You want to wait in the living room while I get dressed?” He was covering his crotch.
“Okay. Sure,” I replied.
I had just turned to go into the living room when I heard a sleepy voice. “Mike.” I turned back and there, in the gap between the bed and the window, struggling to get up was the silhouette of a naked man. He was shaky and fell onto the bed into Michael’s lap.
I gasped in horror at what I saw and immediately ran out into the living room, my head reeling in confusion and panic.
Michael ran out after me.
He grabbed my arm and I realized that I was shaking uncontrollably.
“Where are you going?”
“None of your business.” I pushed his hand off.
“Sit down and let me explain.”
“What’s there to explain?” I asked, my voice breaking.
“Look, you wait here and I will dress up. Then we can go for coffee nearby.”
The student café was empty when we entered. We sat down and ordered coffee. I looked out of the big window at the passing traffic and pedestrians walking past. I could feel my eyes clouding over but I refused to show my weak side.
“I’m sorry, Melvyn,” he said softly, “you know how it gets lonely out here.”
“No, I don’t….you tell me.”
“Don’t be like that. I have needs and, and….Brandon……”
“Let me complete it for you….and Brandon was available.”
He bowed his head.
I flew back to Singapore a couple of days later. Although I had checked into a downtown hotel near Chinatown and gone on guided tours of San Francisco, I really didn’t have the heart to enjoy myself. Michael tried to contact me but I refused to answer his calls and SMSs. I needed time to think.
I thought about it and wrote an email to Michael.
“I still cannot accept your betrayal. Give me time to get over it. – Melvyn.” The message was short but it was the last communication I had with him because before I could get over it, Michael wrote back — “Sorry to hurt you but I think we better end it.”
So that was that. At least I learnt one thing, don’t try to surprise anybody; you never know when you will get surprised yourself in return.
“I guess I am.” I was answering his question of whether I was gay.
“Relationships can be so fragile. Gay ones especially,” I said pursing my lips. I had just told Steven the story of Michael and me. “We didn’t even try to work at it. We never gave it another chance. I guess we took the easily way out.”
“So are you okay now?” Steven asked.
“I guess so. It hurt very badly at first. I can still recall when I first came back from San Francisco, how terrible it was. But time heals and so I picked up the pieces and moved on. I went to Melbourne to study after that and the rest as they say is history.”
“Good for you. And after all these years, no more relationships?”
“On off. Nothing serious. I am a bit jaded.”
“I know how it feels.”
Did he? All these straight people.
Our afternoon teas became more and more regular. We didn’t always talk shop; we talked about many other things but in actual fact, we simply enjoyed each other’s company.
It was during one of the teas that Steven came up with the idea.
We had just attended an anti-bullying workshop. The speakers had urged the participants to have a more serious look at school bullying and take action before tragedy struck.
“You know we actually have very piecemeal efforts at tackling bullying. We know that boys can be very cruel especially to the weaker and more vulnerable. But we have always only handled cases as and when they become serious enough as in the case of Adrian. Maybe we should do something more concrete and proactive…..you know us teachers can initiate something? We can’t expect the bullied to; they are most likely too scared to. And the rest of the student population, well they usually don’t bother because they feel that it doesn’t concern them. It is the most opportune now since we have just attended the course; it would be the perfect time to do something.”
“What do you have in mind?” I asked, showing interest.
“Well….just thinking aloud….what about a campaign?….Uh, maybe it could be led by students and supported by teachers.”
“Sounds interesting. I think it might work.” My mind was racing.
“Let’s think about it and maybe put a proposal up to the Principal next week?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
Mr Liew, the Principal agreed to try it out after listening to our proposal. He put Steven in charge and me as his assistant.
We would first sell our idea at a staff meeting. Teachers could include discussion on the topic of bullying during civics and moral education lessons. Then we would speak to the student body at the school assembly and get interested students to come forward and be involved.
And so we started, feebly at first but it picked up momentum after Steven spoke to everyone at the assembly. I began to realize that Steven was a very engaging and persuasive speaker. I listened intently to him as his mellifluous voice rose and fell. I could sense that he had similarly moved his other listeners.
Next the Principal spoke. He asked for volunteers from the student population who were willing to be involved in this worthwhile project. Those interested were to see Mr Gan or Mr Tan.
About ten students came forward. Among them were Jan Weng, known for being outspoken, Kenneth Lim, the track and field captain and Joo Seng and Joo Meng, a pair of identical twins who had been till then nondescript. What was a pleasant surprise was a rather frail looking boy who was in the library club. Alvin Tong although not flamboyant or loud had been the victim of a lot of teasing. It was a surprise because I had all along found him pretty mousy, too mousy to be involved in this type of work. It was pleasant because I felt all along that the weak should be encouraged to come forward and make a stand in the cruel and unaccepting world of boys.
The first task was to name the movement. Several good suggestions came up. ‘Anti-Bullying Campaign’, ‘No More Bullying’, ‘Stand Up Against Bullies’, ‘We Hate Bullies’ and finally ‘Students Act Against Bullying’. We decided on ‘Students Act Against Bullying’ or SAAB because it showed that students themselves were having ownership and taking personal action to make the school a safer environment.
The second task was to decide what exactly to do.
The students decided to have an anti-bullying week. It would have a four-day exhibition with displays of posters with messages against bullying. This included the message that bullies themselves needed help. There were also stations with foreign video clips of victims who shared about how they survived bullying.
The week ended with a speech at the school assembly.
The students had to make a decision about who would be speaking.
I was surprised again that Alvin Tong volunteered to be the one.
Sitting at the back of the auditorium, I heard him begin, rather shakily at first. But then once he got on the way, his confidence surged. He talked about how he was the last child in his family and constantly being compared with his siblings. It led to a lack of confidence on his part. Because of this, he said that he was bullied and teased by bigger boys in Primary school and when he came to Secondary school, he had hoped that things would get better. However, things worsened when he was perpetually teased about his soft mannerisms and speech. He talked about how he cried each night at first and only became better when he told himself that it will get better in future when he grew up.
“But it doesn’t make bullying right; even if I had learned how to cope with it, it doesn’t at all make it right.”
I could sense the passion he spoke with. The hushed silence in the auditorium showed that I was not the only one touched. Alvin ended his speech to resounding applause.
The week was a hit.
Success breeds confidence so it was not surprising that the boys decided to make SAAB into a permanent club. They would draw up a programme to help all in need but what was more impressive was that they had plans to make the school a happier place. They believed that when everyone is happier, it will greatly reduce the need to bully. It included talks and discussions on self-esteem and confidence, how to be happy in spite of…., how everyone has a right to live without fear. School counselors were roped in to help. Mrs Khoo was put in charge of them. The students asked for Steven to be the club advisor. They couldn’t have made a better choice.
My only regret was that gay bashing and homophobia were not brought to the fore. When I told Steven this, he told me that our anti-bullying objectives covered them. The movement was just a beginning in the right direction.
A New Beginning
“I have something to confess,” Steven sounded like he was going to disclose something important. We were having tea at the usual place. Except for us, there was no one else in the restaurant. The two waiters were at the bar counter chatting happily away.
I looked at Steven, expectantly.
“There is another reason why I didn’t tell on you and Michael. Remember the time when I asked you whether you were gay and you said you were? Well, it takes great courage but I feel I have to tell you that I am too. That is the other reason why I didn’t tell on you guys. I just couldn’t”
What he said came as a shock to me. All along I had thought he was straight.
“But I thought you are straight. I remember you were dating when I was a student. I think I met you a couple of times with her, shopping at Orchard.”
“Oh, you must mean Christine. Well I tried but it just didn’t work out because I couldn’t go on. Anyway, nobody has the word ‘gay’ written on their foreheads and for your information, not all gays are effeminate and not all are loud and flamboyant. Many of us are just ordinary looking average Joes going about minding our own business.”
“Then why are you telling me all this now?” I asked.
“Well, I thought, maybe, just maybe you might want to start a relationship with me.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I wasn’t quite prepared for this. Firstly, I thought all along that he was straight. Secondly, I never realized that he had any feelings for me.
“Well, what do you think?” Steven looked at me earnestly.
“Well, Sir,” I said calmly, “I thought you’d never ask.”