By Anurak Saelaow Hao
"I didn't expect you to start on that nonsense, you know."
Goh instinctively straightens up, dropping the cigarette onto the ground of the loading bay.
"I should be calling you sir now, right?' An embarrassed, almost guilty expression as he crushes the butt with the heel of his boot.
"There's no need for that." Jerry pats his shoulder, awkwardly, his tanned face weirdly rife with wrinkles.
The last drag curdling in his throat as he tries to suppress a cough. Trying his best not to meet Jerry's eyes, like a schoolboy caught in the act. Jerry, oblivious as always, continues to banter.
"Besides, if you'd stayed you'd be CO by now. And I'd be out of a job."
"Bullshit. You gave a great briefing just now."
"Yeah, less than half the men were asleep. That's a record." Jerry smirks. He had always been the joker, the daredevil, the kind of boy to sneak in contraband tidbits to their outfield excursions.
Goh struggles to reconcile his image of the wayward section-mate with that of this oddly-wrinkled man. He thinks of how people lose themselves gradually, in age. How enough sometimes shines through the cracks, illuminating the shrine of self.
Jerry had stayed, and he had moved on. That was the way it went. That was the way their paths had diverged, lit by different slants of light. One to stand vigil at the crossroads, and another to venture ahead, beyond what he had known. Into the murkiness of what he was still navigating today, the world of long-sleeved shirts and briefcases, without a compass or the comms set to guide him.
Goh reaches for his packet again, then stops himself, self-conscious. Not in front of Jerry.
It rains that night, turning the tracks muddy-soft and yielding as they arrive the next day. Goh swears as he dismounts the tonner and catches his foot in a particularly sloppy patch. The rifle's now-foreign weight slung around his neck as he heaves his pack off the back of the truck.
"Help me tell CSM to recce the deployment area. For now, we'll hold here."
The vernacular comes back to him instantly, tumbling from his lips like a long-unrehearsed mother tongue. His runner nods and ambles away.
Alone, Goh fingers his weapon delicately, tracing the once-familiar contours across its length. Muzzle. Hand-guard. Charging handle. Stock and trigger. At one point in time he had known her inside-out, been able to disassemble her in forty seconds flat. A company record. Now, she was an old flame, a childhood sweetheart left behind. Another ghost at the cross-roads pointing away from him.
Strange to be thinking of ghosts in the sweltering mid-day sun, he chides himself. There were plans to be drawn, trenches to be dug. Besides, the men would laugh themselves silly if he ever let slip these romantic notions. What did they know of regret? All his life he was bashing through trees, pushing aside the thorny vines and bushes as he struggled to find a track. Always doubting if he was on the right approach, or if he was leading the platoon – or himself – towards an empty ravine, an unoccupied objective.
There were a thousand ways a mission could end, he recalls his old instructor saying, but in the end there's only victory – or defeat. Like a gun-toting, chain-smoking Herodotus, that man was. "Call no man happy until he is dead." Goh has a pretty good idea which way the scales would swing, though.
Later, they set up camp within the vegetation, push in the trucks and drape the nets over every surface. Goh knows it was only an exercise, but takes every precaution he remembers from his training. It was the thoroughness that Jerry expected from him. Besides, he knows it'd be a long time before he could experience anything like this again.
It was true, he'd missed it. Everything about it. The crusted sweat creeping across the back of his neck, the persistent damp inside his boots. The constant shuffling of feet and the back-wash of comms crackling intermittently as he tries to sleep. The rifle gripped with both hands, as if he were a cadet again, afraid of it being snatched away by a cruel instructor.
He repositions himself on his ground-sheet and wonders if this was how his forefathers had slept. Not just the ones who constructed their attap houses and slept on rattan mats facing the breeze. Before that, when they were hunter-gatherers huddled together tending the embers of a fire that held the darkness at bay.
Before time progressed, the darkness spilling over; no longer surrounding man, but imbibed, internalised. Before men worked themselves sleepless in cubicles with coffee and artificial, fluorescent lights, preparing reports and figures that only made sense in an abstract sort of way. Thought piled upon thought until paper piled up past the windows and blocked out everything else.
There was no danger nowadays, with artificial light. Nothing to set the heart pounding, no rogue beast or infiltrators at the boundary of vision. Only the doubt that filled the hearts of modern men. That was Goh's theory, at least. He preferred the enemy you could aim at, even if his rifles held blanks and the grenades were inert and painted blue.
Dreams, the sensation of lightness. He slips into the memory like a bullet fed into a chamber. Jerry and him and so many other cadets trudging along another endless mud track, balancing their weapons and packs across their shoulders.
He knows they've been marching for a while, and that they're nowhere near the end. The forest sprawling away on all sides. His face caked with dry mud and camo cream.
"Is this all you remember?" Jerry, suddenly next to him, looking expectant. His rifle hanging loose from his neck instead of gripped with both hands, as was mandated by their instructors.
Goh doesn't answer but continues to walk. He searches the green-brown horizon for another clue, another speck of significance. A growing fear inside his stomach growls yes, that was it. Two years of this and all he can recall is the brown and the green and the fatigue bearing down on him like a tank. Two years and that's how he walks away from it all. It's practically undignified.
Contacted, someone shouts. Contacted. He drops to all fours and leopard-crawls off the road, his heart juddering like a SAW – no, that was the enemy, that was someone's machine gun firing a burst. A familiar thrill inside his breast, his teeth clenched in anticipation. The moment had dawned, and he knows what he needs to do. Goh brings his rifle to bear – and finds his palms empty, strangely weightless. His rifle gone. Powerless, he finds cover behind a tree and pants. He has nothing to fire with, nothing to do but wait out the engagement.
"Don't you think you're romanticising this a little too much?" Jerry again, by his side. Then a grenade lands between them. Then nothing.
Goh shakes himself awake and forgets the dream.
He had tried to say that it wasn't about the machismo, but it partially was. His then-girlfriend had laughed when he showed her the contract. He had prepared a pitch about Brotherhood and Duty and other big concepts, but she knew it all boiled down to the same thing. "I know you just want people to call you sir, right?" Maybe. But not completely. Goh knew he would never have been able to articulate it fully to her, or anyone else but himself. Not even himself.
Here was a world which mattered, he had reasoned. Whatever that meant. His parents, too, hadn't bought it, and threatened to disown him. The force had given him a title, a uniform and a purpose, a general shape to the path that sprawled in front of him. A direction that, at the time, seemed compelling – but ultimately, not compelling enough. He had decided against it in the recruiter's office, acceded to his parent's advice to explore his options, and the world, a little further.
Often he would think about the moment he pulled the pen away from paper and apologised to the captain across the desk. The way the air seemed still and final, the circumstances congealing around him like amber. The captain had tried to assure him, to tell him that he could always come back if he changed his mind. Goh knew then that he never could.
Only Jerry had understood. Jerry, his bunk confidante, his irreverent friend. Jerry, with the crestfallen face when Goh told of his decision, his own signature fresh against the paper. It was ironic, Goh had thought even then. Goh had always been more of a natural soldier, took more easily to the regimentation and hardship that had defined their time together, but Jerry was the one who stayed.
Goh, under the shade in the forest, laying on his ground-sheet, still wonders which of them had left the other behind.
Soon, they declare the exercise over. Goh finds himself on stage with Jerry, shaking hands and being congratulated on the end of another successful ICT. Then he's alone, in the bunk, packing up his belongings and thinking about returning to work. Back to the second-tier firm with the dress code and the cubicles. The mind-numbing work and the numbers, the doubt still gnawing from within, forcing him to inhale one pack of cigarettes after another.
It is here that Jerry finds him again, finally alone. "Strange how we never met up after everyone ORD-ed." Strange, yes, but Goh doesn't tell him about the irrational shame he had felt, the sense of betrayal that seeped through each of their interactions after the moment. One glance at Jerry's face outside the office had been enough to let him know that nothing would stay the same.
"Yeah." The word hangs between them, suspended in the air like dust. He had never been articulate, had never known how best to say what was needed.
They sit in silence for a while, considering what to say. Goh's mind drawn again to the paths he had chosen, the tracks he had left at every turn. An endless army of ghosts stretching out behind him, bearing his face, the adornments of what-could-have-been. He knows there was no epiphany waiting for him, no sudden, dawning happiness. Just the stoic understanding that he had chosen his path, that to choose had been a necessary tragedy.
The sunlight filtering in between the clouded windowpanes. His fist slowly unclenching itself as Jerry turns to face him. "That was just like old times, right?"
Goh, silent again, nodding in agreement.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014