By Damon Chua
They said the chalet was haunted. But that wasn't what bothered me. It was the narrow stretch of beach that formed a simple crescent between where we were and the nearest mangrove tree. As I ensconced myself onto the warm, prickly sand, trying to read, all I can think about was how Jackson died.
It must have been the same beach. But it could have been another sandy strip altogether. After all, I've not been back to Berdua Island all this time. I thought I would never return. But Fern, my constant companion, had other plans. We were eating chicken rice in Telok Blangah when she turned to me and said: "Let's go snorkeling," and I said: "Sure". Then she mentioned Berdua Island. I froze. That place. That dreaded place.
Jackson and I grew up near where Bishan MRT stands today. In those days the surrounding area was mostly farmland abutted here and there by outcrops of tertiary jungle. A small Hakka-speaking village laid just beyond where today's Jalan Pemimpin comes to a dead end. This was home to Jackson and I. We would roam the countryside chasing monkeys that came out to forage from Lower Peirce reservoir, and we would trek along the banks of Upper Kallang River as far as Potong Pasir before turning back. This sliver of rural Singapore was our universe. We didn't know any better.
It came to be known that Jackson and I would compete against each other whenever we had the chance. Jackson might have been the faster sprinter, but I was certainly the better swimmer, as our occasional visit to the Queenstown Pool proved. Standing by the shallow end in his imitation Speedos, he would dip his toe into the tepid water before jumping in. Meanwhile I would be happily doing the backstroke, chortling to myself as he practiced underwater breathing beneath the diving boards.
But Jackson was never cowered by my successes, or at least, he never showed it. "One day," he would say, "I will board an alien spacecraft and fly away to a world where I will be King. You'll see." To me, Jackson was always the dreamer, always talking about the impossible.
Fern has a question about Romania. "What is its capital?" she asks, tilting her head. As is typical of Fern, this query comes out of nowhere. "I'm not sure," I say, not paying her attention. Then a thought strikes: "Isn't it Budapest?" "No, that's the capital of Hungary, silly." She is right of course. Later, still with no answer, Fern frets about the fact that we have no internet access from the chalet. I begin to think about going home.
Jackson and I went to the same primary school, and found ourselves again as classmates in secondary school. Some people thought we were brothers as we spent all our time together. On my part, I worried that I would never rid myself of him. Then, one day, while coming out of Capitol Theatre, we chanced into a girl eating a curry puff. For some reason she came up to me and asked for a tissue paper. I didn't have one, but we started chatting. She said her name was Poh Lee.
Poh Lee was only fifteen then, a year younger than Jackson and I. But she was mature beyond her years, and far more worldly. She would casually mention that her Uncle was traveling to Macau, or that her parents liked the superior shark's fin soup at Majestic Restaurant. My own family had never been to the famed seafood outlet, let alone leave for such an exotic locale as Macau, so I was suitably impressed.
But Jackson's response was different. "Who wants to go to Macau anyway?" he had chimed in, nonchalant. I could sense even then there was a strange friction between them, a friction that would in time lend itself to an awkward, ambivalent frisson. In fact, the first thing Jackson ever said to Poh Lee was that he didn't like her hair, and she had replied curtly, "You know nothing!" That was my recollection of what transpired. But maybe the whole exchange never happened at all, for Poh Lee always swore that the first words she heard out of Jackson's mouth was that he wanted to go eat kueh tutu.
Out of nowhere, a Malay boy appears, bearing a small rattan basket full of local fruits. He approaches and tries to sell me some brownish rambutans. I ask if he has bottled water and he says he will come back in fifteen minutes. Then I look up, surveying the surf, looking for Fern. I cannot see her, and turn my attention back to my novel.
The Malay boy wakes me up. Judging by the light it is immediately clear that more than fifteen minutes have passed. I pay for the water and the Malay boy goes away. All at once I begin to worry about Fern. Then I hear someone playing music in the chalet. Somewhat relieved, I stand up, clearing sand from my body. I make my way back.
Poh Lee, Jackson and I would take the No. 73 bus to East Coast. There, we would buy grilled cuttlefish on sticks and eat them under the casuarina trees. Once, when we felt very rich, we had pooled our pocket money together to buy a dragon-shaped kite. It was the best time we ever had. When the kite was high in the sky, I thought this was how happy people lived. The winds were blowing in our faces and we had no other thoughts than to be together. Later, the kite somehow broke loose and flew away. We ran after it for several long seconds but quickly lost track of it against the glare of the sun. It was the first time I saw Poh Lee cry.
One day, Jackson came up to us and said he was going to visit his second aunt in Kuantan. I asked, "Where's Kuantan?" and Poh Lee laughed at me. "Mountain turtle," she remarked snidely in Hokkien. Jackson quickly joined in the laughter, and I remembered Poh Lee placing her left arm around him in one smooth gesture. Somehow that mark of intimacy was enough to create an understanding that she would go with him, and that I had to ask if I wanted to tag along. I didn't, at least initially, and stewed for a few days before that fateful conversation outside Odeon.
Standing in front of the poster of a Japanese movie, I had asked, "Can I come?" It sounded weak and desperate, and I remembered Poh Lee giving Jackson a sidelong glance. He didn't say anything for a while. Then, as I started to walk away, Poh Lee called after me, "Will you buy us ice cream?" And the matter was settled. Of course, I had to pay for my way. As for Poh Lee, she said she would borrow money from her elder brother who worked as a salesman. But from my memory of how things turned out, it was Jackson who lent her the money. He never had the opportunity to ask for it back.
Just before entering the chalet I stop in front of the door, thinking of Fern. I retrace the series of events that have led me to where I am. Fern – beautiful, headstrong Fern. Is she expecting me to propose to her this weekend? Is that why she insisted on coming here? I think for a while as I listen to Michael Bublé crooning away in the background.
We sit down to a simple dinner. She says very little, apart from remarking about the wallpaper and the fact that she forgot to bring sweetener for her coffee. Suddenly all I can think about is Poh Lee – Poh Lee dashing about in the rain trying to gather her mother's hanging laundry; Poh Lee singing a Teresa Teng song while eating a Chupa Chup; Poh Lee scratching her blotchy calves after being bitten by mosquitoes.
It was Jackson who first discovered the cave by the small Malay village. We had traveled to Berdua from his aunt's home on the mainland after finding out about the free ferry service. In those days, Berdua Island had no schools, and all the students had to make their way to Kuantan for classes. The result was the boat service, organized by the islanders, which also doubled as a water taxi for tourists. We thought we were the first people ever to find the cave. But soon we found remnants of a previous bonfire – discarded chicken bones, charred banana leaves and a dozen empty coconut husks. We decided to set up camp there.
I have an image of that beautiful day by the beach. It is that of the setting sun reflecting off the water as the waves ran up the sand and brushed our feet. The three of us had taken in too much sun and were huddling together under a large piece of driftwood half way up the beach when Poh Lee started to recite Buddhist mantras at the top of her voice. I began to play with a tiny crab that had appeared from under the sand, while Jackson, taciturn as ever, would only sulk.
In fact, I ran into Poh Lee about a year ago, in a bank along Selegie Road. I was surprised that I could still recognize her. But the recognition wasn't mutual, and she walked past me with someone who appeared to be her colleague. Poh Lee was dressed in a dark navy jacket with matching skirt, talking with some conviction about property prices. I thought of approaching her but hesitated for several seconds. That was long enough for her to slip out of the bank. When I started running after her, she was already halfway across the road. Then the lights turned red. I have not seen her since.
Fern and I had sex once, in the middle of the day, when I took time off from work to baby-sit my contractor who was repairing tiles in my bathroom. But he cancelled at the last minute, and I called Fern to come round. As a freelance graphic designer, Fern had great flexibility in her day-to-day activity. At that time she was in the middle of creating a website for a local childcare group. It was something she didn't care for and was more than happy to play truant. Later, after we had both showered, Fern confessed to having a craving for chocolate éclairs, and demanded that we drove to her favorite bakery to get some. In the car, I had looked over to her and thought it would not be difficult to fall in love.
Jackson and Poh Lee had an argument. I didn't know how it began, but it quickly escalated into a shouting match and I had to excuse myself. Later, when I returned to the cave, I saw the two disappearing in different directions – Jackson towards the mangrove swamp, and Poh Lee to where a new beachfront motel was being built. I stayed near camp, gathering twigs and dried palm leaves for a bonfire that never happened. Eventually Poh Lee returned. But there was no sign of Jackson. When midnight approached, we weighed the option of seeking help versus going to bed. We decided to go to bed.
When they fished Jackson's body out of the sea, he had already been dead for a while. His death was quickly ruled an accidental drowning by the kampong police and no further questions were asked. When the discovery first happened, Poh Lee and I were waiting for the ferry to take us back to the mainland, to get help. Instead, we went back to the beach to identify the body. The bloated form that greeted us didn't look like Jackson at all. In fact, it reminded me of some human-jellyfish hybrid, a wrinkled thing that happened to be stranded at low tide. Poh Lee, shocked, never said a word.
Later, on the boat back to Kuantan, I discovered a small notebook among Jackson's belongings. I quietly slipped the article into my bag when no one was looking. Then Poh Lee turned to me and said: "It was about you. It's always about you," as if the explanation meant something. I looked away, and was glad that the chugging sounds of the ferry filled the growing silence.
There was a time when I had imagined what my life would have been like with Poh Lee – how we would live in an upscale condo with our two kids; how Jackson would be godfather to our son. I would fill my head with details of the weekends we would spend together. Perhaps all of us would even have gone back to Berdua Island.
Fern starts to worry about a design project she has with an Australian consulting firm. It is the last day of our trip, and it has begun to drizzle. All afternoon long I have been expecting the little Malay boy to appear, perhaps with offerings of watermelon or mangosteen. But he is nowhere to be seen, and all I can do is to wait out on the covered verandah and stare quietly into the choppy surf. Later, after Fern has washed her hair, we sit down to another meal of microwaved pasta. I remark on the sweet smell of her shampoo, and she smiles briefly. Then she takes another diet coke from the fridge.
It didn't surprise me that Jackson was secretly in love with Poh Lee. His notebook provided ample evidence of that. There were childish, hand-drawn pictures of a boy and a girl holding hands, accompanied by sketches of a big, happy family. But the renderings had singularly failed to capture Poh Lee's unique smile. There was even a little poem, not unlike a love sonnet, that triggered a little explosion of fury within me. Later, after we had returned home, I made sure to throw the notebook out into the trash. Poh Lee never knew it existed.
Jackson's funeral, a closed casket affair, was held at one of the numerous funeral homes in Paya Lebar. My clearest memory of it was sitting at one of the larger round tables, one that had peanut shells piled high on one side. Next to that was a tray full of lukewarm packets of chrysanthemum tea. I took a packet and started sipping. I didn't stop sipping even when the Taoist monks stood up to commence the death rites.
After dinner, Fern and I sit down to watch TV. At some point, I move near and try to kiss her. But she nudges away, not unfriendly, perhaps just a little bored. At that moment the fridge thermostat chooses to kick noisily to life, rattling everything around it. It sends a jolt down my spine, and I begin to think that maybe the chalet is haunted after all, that there is a resident ghost, looking at everything from its quiet spot in the corner. But the feeling passes, and Fern starts to yawn loudly. I shrug, turn away and continue to watch a rerun of The Golden Girls.
Later that night, I have a dream. I dream that I am deep underwater, with Fern snorkeling way above me. It is as if I am scuba diving, except I can breathe normally without aqualungs. I look around, stopping to admire a shoal of colorful parrotfish, squinting to see if I can spot bottlenose dolphins.
Suddenly, a large shadow appears. I look up and realize that it is a giant turtle, swimming by with an ageless grace. For some reason, I call out, "Jackson," and try to touch it. But it quickly glides away, disappearing behind some strange looking kelp. It is then, for a split second, that the kelp becomes a bizarre conglomeration of wavy eel-like creatures, and the ocean an alien planet, and I am looking through the crack of this world into another that is infinitely stranger. This is the place Jackson would have gone if he had boarded a spaceship, where he would be King.
Seconds later, the turtle makes another approach. But this time it has been transformed into a huge shark. It bears its teeth, ready to strike. I wake, shaken, and for several seconds cannot tell where I am.
I look at Fern's sleeping form, and marvel anew at how her deep, involuntary breathing always manages to calm me down. Quietly, I creep out of the bed and make my way down to the sand. The sun is rising, and all at once Berdua feels like the island paradise it is meant to be.
I had come out of the cave, before Poh Lee returned, before all the bad things happened. For I had a sudden intuition that I could find Jackson. So I headed for the mangroves, and after about ten minutes of walking along the seafront, came across a familiar figure just beyond a slim crescent of a beach. It was him, slowly making his way into the surf, step by step, deeper and deeper, as if he was practicing walking. But he never stopped, even when the waves started lapping at his chest. Eventually I turned away, pretending that nothing had happened. Perhaps he saw us stealing a kiss in the darkness of the cave. Perhaps it was an accident after all.
In my mind's eyes, I can still see the three of us chasing that wayward kite. I can see Poh Lee wrinkling her nose as she ate her curry puff, and Jackson looking at her with an enigmatic expression on his face. Then all I see is Jackson's bloated carcass on the beach. Or maybe that stranded thing is really me, on another beach, marooned by high tide and unable to float back out to sea.
Later, when the sun is higher, I lean against a coconut tree and begin to hum a tune. The tune jumps key and morphs into a Teresa Teng song. I continue to hum for a long time.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 4 Oct 2008