By Paul Tan
The moth fluttering about woke him up. In his half-asleep state, it sounded like the mechanical beating of tiny shutters. Click. Click. Click. His eyes struggled to focus. It was still dark. How long had he been sleeping? Where was he really? It took him a moment to remember that he was not in the barracks bunk.
The moth hovered, as if flirting with the dim bedside lamp. Of course, he was in his own bedroom. Back home, he was a light sleeper. The hint of traffic, a shutting door or even a soft footfall could jolt him awake. This was different in the army camp though, where sleep came way too easily. The thought of the camp brought him to reality. His feverish sleep had been uninterrupted but he shuddered involuntarily as the startling images returned to taunt him.
Through the window, he could see a dark sky, with a tiny hint of a rusty colour. He must have only slept five or six hours since dawn was just breaking. It had been a fitful slumber and he hardly felt rested. He put his hand on his forehead. It was damp but at least, the fever had abated.
But he did not want to get up. So he closed his eyes and willed himself to fall asleep. It did not work. He remembered how easy it was to fall asleep when he was a recruit or cadet. Those open lectures in the field after lunch were the worst. No matter how hard he tried to fight the Z-Monster, as it was whimsically called, the stultifying heat and the monotonous drone of the lecturing officer would overcome him. His little black notebook with a dirty elastic band attested to the frequency of this. On various pages, his neat, blockish handwriting would dissolve into illegible scribbles, the messy strokes breaching the discipline of the printed ruled lines. Once or twice, he even dropped his pen onto the ground as he dozed off. It was disgraceful. Why couldn't he stay awake?
But he wasn't alone in giving in to the enemy. Other guys drifted off too. They just did not get enough sleep at night, not that it stopped the instructors from punishing them. That was how the Basic Military Training and Officer Cadet School were structured: every single waking moment was milked, sleep was pared down to the bare minimum, the bodies and minds pushed to the extreme. That was the only way to pick out the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff, though he often felt that the instructors sometimes went overboard in their enthusiasm.
His mind drifted to his girlfriend Mei Ying. He wanted to speak to her, hopefully later in the morning. What she was doing now? Probably sleeping, dreaming of tutorials and lecture notes. Life as an undergrad in the campus hostel must be a world away from his routine in the army barracks. Sometimes he wondered if some of the male undergrads, especially in the friendly mixed environment of the hostel, tried to hit on her.
He still marvelled at how easily their friendship had slipped into courtship one evening years ago. They were walking from the college orientation campfire when she complained she was cold. He placed a casual arm round the shoulder. She did not resist either when eventually he gingerly took her hand. It was as simple as that.
Mei Ying had patiently listened when he described military life at its bleakest. These had been the shared intimacies he drew on for inspiration. But now he worried about the months ahead. What lay ahead? It was terrifying, more unnerving than any OCS abseiling exercise (he had a bad phobia of heights) or the time when as a cadet, he assumed a Platoon Commander appointment for a company attack mission in Brunei.
The moth's agitated flapping was annoying him. He got up, caught the dark brown insect in his cupped hand and released it out the window. Now that I have given you your freedom, he sent a silent message to the creature as it disappeared into the darkness, can I please get some sleep?
When his parents heard him stirring in the bedroom, they called out to him and asked him to come and have something to eat.
As he walked out, he was shocked to see the television switched on with his brother slumped before it. It struck him that it was not dawn. Far from it. A look at the clock in the living room confirmed that it was 7.30 pm in the evening. He had been in bed for over twenty hours, even though he had no recollection of the daylight.
"Feeling better or not?" His mother asked, more solicitously than usual, while his father looked at him a little quizzically, as if scrutinizing his face for a clue. As she brought out a huge bowl of noodle soup from the kitchen, he suddenly felt reluctant to eat it, partly out of the fear that he would throw up again. He stared at the steaming bowl placed before him for the longest time.
His father, who had said nothing thus far, placed an arm on his son's shoulder and sat down beside him at the dining table. "Tell me honestly, Seng," he asked, "how much trouble are you in? What exactly was your role in the accident?"
After his commissioning as an officer, Seng had begun the rest of his military life as an idealist. His posting to a Basic Military Training school on Pulau Tekong meant he could even right those wrongs he experienced as a recruit: the instructors' trigger-happy tempers, the torrent of vulgarities, the barking orders and disproportionate punishments.
But over the months, he came to accept, even rationalize, the necessity of ritual: the stripping of the recruit's individual identity to create a disciplined team player who could follow instructions, march in unison and look out for each other. The shaved heads, the reductive nametags, the camouflage uniform, the stiff boots were all part of the army's insistence on conformity. Part of the step-by-step manual for the erasure of old civilian selves.
Those sergeants and staff sergeants whom he had feared and detested had seen so many batches of recruits and were just doing his job after all. They knew best which buttons to press, what strings to pull to get a specific response. It was almost mundane, if it didn't seem so unnecessarily mean-spirited and cruel at times.
As long as things did not get out of hand and the punishments were not doled out for perverse pleasure, he closed one eye and let things run their course. Besides old habits die hard, he told himself, and these experienced specialists knew when to draw the line. Anyway, it was all like a lame reality show. The old-timers played the hardened villains who made crude jokes about Batam prostitutes while he played the strict but fair officer who would calmly inspire the recruits with his example. All this was part of the national game called conscription, wasn't it? Could he really have changed the system, even if he had spoken up?
He saw through five batches of recruits, each staying for twelve weeks and then leaving after a dignified Passing Out Parade. Though he became more detached, less idealistic, no one could accuse him of not doing his part. He was careful, detailed in his preparatory work and took enough interest in the welfare of the men under his charge. His good luck, he often consoled himself, held out to the very end.
He told his parents, Mei Ying, the Board of Inquiry and much later, the military court the same story, albeit with different emphases and minor editorial elisions. To his parents, he did not explain the complicated set-up and responsibilities during a Live Firing; to Mei Ying, he spared her the stomach-churning details of exit wounds and blood-soaked stretchers; to the court, there was no need to add that after the accident, he suddenly developed a high-fever and laid in bed for days. Only give the audience what they need, he told himself.
But as it was, each recounting produced that same weak-kneed, light-headed sensation, especially at the point of the narrative where he explained how under his watch as Safety Officer, a stray bullet had left Recruit Ho B.K.'s M16 during the Rifle Marksmanship Test and how it found its way to the soldier in the next lane, puncturing his torso and ripping through his lungs.
That day had begun unusually with a sighting of wild boars en route to the rifle range. They were on the sandy track in the three-tonner vehicle when its headlights caught the glassy eyes of a family of scavenging wild boars. They fled, disappearing into the shadowy vegetation. It was strange that even on an island with no natural predators, he thought, their instinct for camouflage and quick escape was just as keen.
It was still very early in the day and the sun had not even risen yet. They always set off at an unearthly hour on days with range but he was in good spirits. Everyone knew that he was approaching ORD soon and that this was the last Marksmanship Test that he would be involved in. Today they were conducting the Run-down Stage which involved firers shooting from various distances within a specific amount of time. As a recruit and cadet, Seng had enjoyed this. It felt almost like an arcade game.
But on the other side of the instructor-trainee divide, there were many tedious administrative tasks, from the tabulation of scores to the accounting of thousands of bullets and spent cartridges. Certainly he was not going to miss the foraging for empty cartridges, their noisy clinking cacophony in the ammo boxes.
Even though the first shots rang out at 8 am, ahead of schedule, Seng was irritated that they could not finish before lunch. A sizeable number of recruits had to reshoot because of some computer glitch. Since the rostered instructor was still having his smoke break, Seng offered to act as Safety Officer for the last reshoot detail at 3 pm. This was the detail with Recruits Ho B.K. and Jackson Seetoh.
Seng did not particularly like Ho. He had a slow-witted cunning about him. You couldn't tell if he really had slow reflexes and just plainly has a bad attitude. Seng had observed that he was often the last to fall in and that during training, he was one of the laggards in the platoon. Definitely not material for any leadership position. Seetoh, on the other hand, was from another platoon and to Seng, was just another anonymous recruit.
"Firers, watch your front!" a voice bellowed from the loudhailer. One of his fellow officers told Seng as he put on his earplugs to enjoy this significant moment, his last run-down with blur as sotong recruits. Seng grinned and flashed a thumbs-up sign. As he adjusted his SBO, the rounds whizzed out in front of him, travelling toward the tiny figures of enemy soldiers 300 metres away.
But Ho only engaged one target out of the six possible at this 300-metre mark. He had poor technique and a terrible aim. Still, as they moved down the grassy course, Seng tried to be patient and yelled useful tips to him. To the left! A little to the right! Take in a deep breath! But to no avail. Ho kept on missing, even the easy moving targets at the 100 metre mark. What incompetence!
It was at the 45-metre mark, where firers assume a standing position with the M16 nestled in the shoulder, that Ho encountered a stoppage in his weapon. "I.A.! I.A.!" he called out. Seng watched Ho fumble a little, unsure what to do, on the brink of panic. Instinctively, he shouted out the remedial steps Ho should take. It was something the recruits were supposed to know well anyway, although he knew that under such tiring and stressful conditions, memory was sometimes mysteriously inaccessible.
But he broke his instructions mid-way. As Ho attempted to clear his weapon, his barrel had swung wildly to the side and now pointed threateningly at Seng. He was seized by a sudden rage – why was this recruit such a bloody idiot? He had promised himself not to swear but still the words escaped him.
"Oi, stupid! What the fuck are you doing? Do you know where the fuck the barrel is pointing?" In his surge of feeling, he had not noticed that the confused recruit had failed to lock the weapon to 'safe'. Worse yet, his fingers were poised dangerously beside the trigger.
Seng reached out to push the handguard away from him. For a split second, he thought he even detected a hint of resistance. What a fucking fool… Then the shot leapt out, with a hard, ear-piercing boom. The 5.56mm round spinning at an incredible velocity tore into the torso of the hapless recruit standing five metres away, burrowing through flesh before making a gaping exit wound and lodging itself into the chamber's wooden and concrete walls.
What Seng eventually remembered most of the chaotic events that followed was the clangour and overlay of different sounds: Ho's weapon crashing to the ground with a noisy thud, a shrill siren being set off, someone's (Seetoh's?) strangled, disembodied cry, the medic yelling as he rushed down, his stretcher's metal joints snapping into place, more people shouting, then later, the whirring blades of the helicopter.
And what was he doing? He was immobilized, rocking on the heels of his boots, staring fixatedly at the bleeding soldier who had collapsed. What could he do? He fingered his pocket and realised he did not even have his First Aid Dressing pack with him. But what could anyone do when faced with ruptured flesh and so much blood, except to wait for the medic? As the medic arrived, along with other ashen-faced instructors, he took his first few tentative steps back, away from the scene and leaned one hand on the chamber wall. Then as he became conscious of a sharp splinter cutting into his palm, Lieutenant Teo Wei Seng took off his helmet and retched.
Seng did not see Ho for years after the military trial, where he had been demoted and fined for negligence and not properly discharging his duties as Safety Officer. His parents were so thankful that, unlike the panicky recruit who squeezed the trigger, Seng did not have to serve any time in the infamous Detention Barracks. He, on the other hand, was more grateful that he never had to face the parents of Jackson Seetoh.
When Seng and Ho eventually bumped into each other at an East Coast Parkway car park, nearly five years had lapsed. Seng had just finished a punishing ten-kilometre run and was walking towards his car. He almost did not recognize his former recruit, who now spotted a full head of hair, highlighted with brown streaks. He was folding up a pram beside a parked electric blue Nissan. A young woman carrying a baby girl, presumably his wife, and an older woman with an incongruously large straw hat, accompanied him.
Their eyes made contact. But Seng quickly averted his and angled his body away from the party.
"Lieutenant Teo," Ho called out.
There was no escape. Clenching his teeth, Seng forced himself to turn around. Why the hell did the guy have to call him Lieutenant? In this decidedly civilian environment and knowing about the rank that was stripped from him, Seng thought Ho must have been mocking him.
"Lieutenant Teo. I almost didn't recognize you. Boon Kong here."
"Hello, Ho." He paused and took a deep breath. "Long time no see."
"Yah, how are you doing, man?"
With the two women watching him, Seng told Ho about his business studies in the university and how he would be looking for a job soon now that he was in his final year.
"Eh, how come haven't finished studying yet?" Ho asked.
"Taking my time. No rush to enter the working world." Seng didn't want to elaborate on the missing year, when he took some time out to unwind. Or to avoid a total shut-down, depending on whom you asked. Changing the subject, he asked, "And how about yourself? You look like you're newly married. Congrats."
Ho smiled and looked at his wife who was starting to strap their baby girl into the car seat. "Yah, I married early. She was my girlfriend from secondary school last time. Next to her is my mother. What about yourself, Lieutenant Teo?"
"Please, Ho. Don't call me Lieutenant or sir. It's embarrassing."
"Eh, sorry. Habit lah. I don't know you by any other name. Sorry." Without being asked, Ho launched into an account of his life after ORD and how he started his career as a real estate agent.
Seng wanted to end the conversation but somehow the words failed him. He was afraid to sound pathetic.
Why did Ho sound so normal? He was the one who got it worse – thrown in the military slammer with a horrible permanent black mark on his record.
Did he ever wake up in the middle of the night with clenched fists, hearing the booming sounds of live-firing or the endless clinking of those empty cartridges ? How did Ho's girlfriend make the transition to wife and life-partner? Seng thought about Mei Ying. She had called it quits a year after the accident, quietly saying that she did not know how to talk to him anymore. Who would not have been weighed down by his gloominess, his sullen wordlessness?
She had even said she would keep all the cards he had sent, and even print out their old email exchanges, as a souvenir of happier times. It was desperately touching, even slightly unreal. But the truth was, separation was final, non-negotiable, the last word.
After a polite pretence, Seng eventually made his escape but not before Ho, former recruit now well-adjusted civilian pressed his name card into his palm, inviting him to call should he ever need to buy or sell any property. Seng said sure and then made an acknowledging nod toward Ho's wife. An attractive girl with luminous eyes, she had an air of vacuous beauty, the kind that remained unfazed by bawling babies or long-winded husbands.
The two men never once mentioned the events which had unfolded in the firing chamber. They were impossible to broach anyway. If Ho had been foolish enough to natter about it, he would have just walked away. Fuck good manners.
He started his engine only after Ho's red car pulled out of the car park. Within a few minutes, he was on the winding slip road, and then the bustling expressway. The family car was an old Proton Saga but he stepped on the accelerator and watched the speedometre quickly climb to 100 km/h. He cranked the radio to its fullest volume. It was playing some crap Bon Jovi number but he didn't mind. The din was more than welcome.
He even flashed his headlights at the car in front of him, a provocative gesture that was uncharacteristic of him. The car meekly filtered to the second lane as he tore ahead. He wished that the expressway would never end. Maybe if he drove fast enough, he could even escape his own history, like in some stupid sci-fi story.
He remembered fondly the piers in Pulau Tekong and how beautiful they looked in the glow of the evening sun. He wondered what would happen if he could have revved his car, raced it down the slope leading to the pier and crashed through its wooden railings. How far would he have flown before eventually making noisy impact with the sea?
He would beat this odd, jagged feeling once and for all, even if he struggled to find the actual words to describe it. Maybe if he had kept his ideals, been a jot more alert, and not so focussed on the freedom offered by ORD; maybe if Ho had been more likeable…
He watched the needle of the speedometer inch across the screen like the spindly leg of a caged insect. 120 km/h. 125 km/h. 130 km/h. The expressway stretched ahead of him invitingly. Perhaps a policeman might pull him over and issue a summons for speeding. Perhaps not. He prayed nothing would stand in the way. At least, Mei Ying couldn't say he had lost his sense of resolve. Who knows? His parents may even empathise, he thought. This would stop the interminable list of what-if's playing in his mind. It was an honorable thing to do, a duty to himself, a worthy legacy to leave behind.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 2 Jan 2007