Ten metres away on the purple-lighted stage, two blonde women straddled their thighs around a steel pole each, jewelled fingers gripping the metal shafts reflexively as their high heels lifted mid-air, hair flung away from their sequined brasseries and, easing into this pose, winded down the poles like toybox ballerinas. At this point I became vaguely aware of the pumping acid house beats that were already throbbing into silence. The dancers jumped to their feet and bowed to the folk in the bar, which on a Thursday night was mostly Nikki, Barry and myself.
The resident band, unseen in the parade of lights during the dance routine, had retaken their places in front of the stage. Barry’s catcalls to the exiting pole dancers were drowned out by an impromptu ‘ONE TWO THREE FOUR’ followed by a 90s rock number charged with 70s punk flair.
Nikki mouthed something to me.
“What!” I shouted back.
“I SAID...TOO NOISY. TALK...OUTSIDE.”
I bobbed my head in agreement as much to Nikki’s proposition as to the familiar guitar riff jah-jarring from the speakers and took a sip from my double scotch on the rocks. Nikki tapped Barry’s attention away from the iridescent lights in the ceiling and I jerked my head towards the door before I, too, became mesmerised by the myriad of changing hues that were like champagne supernovas in the sky.
As I picked up my drink and tailed the other two passing beneath the ‘Smoking Area’ headboard, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Michael? Is that Michael Poh?” a voice chaffed behind me. I turned around with a latency that 80 proof typically induces: the voice belonged to a guy whose hair was so shaggy it covered most of his face and almost reached down to his poncho. I could smell tobacco on his breath.
“Hey, it’s Michaelpooh!” he continued. The curve on his lips preceded the glazed smile in his eyes. “What’re you doing here, bro!”
“Who the fuck are you?” I barked out a laugh.
“It’s me, bro! Don’t you remember me?” The stage lights from the back of the bar intensed for a moment as the rock ballad crescendoed, and for a moment it eclipsed his demeanour.
Standing there at the threshold between the music and my friends, I felt suddenly sure I had met him before. The way he addressed me in that almost indiscernible modulation from Michael Poh to Michaelpooh, in that almost accidental mocking lilt...it belonged to a time that I thought was closed to me forever...
He was wearing a faded khaki uniform with the wind blowing about his floppy fringed crew cut, an embossed chevron trailed by two smaller ones just above it on either ends of his collar that framed a cigarette between his lips, pulling hard on it to compete with the dusk breeze that was eating it up...
“Sergeant?” A purple light stained my vision for a moment and I rubbed it away along with the memory. He was in his short hair and poncho again and I felt awkward addressing him by rank.
“Ha ha, I haven’t been called that for years now, Private Michaelpooh! What’re you doing here?”
“Just hanging with friends. And you?”
“I’m here with some guys from 5 SIB. Over there,” he pointed over my shoulder.
I turned around and through the doorway I saw where Nikki and Barry were already seated. Streaks of flames sprayed forth from a pole dancer’s mouth and up into the evening air, and when the flames receded I saw Them.
They were seated at the next table, four or five vaguely familiar faces that were hard to tell apart as though they were all cast from the same mould; they all wore the same imitation Converse sneakers, TopShop skinny jeans, glittering belts and giant caps with too-thin brims that nested at canted angles on their unkempt hair. Like all Singaporean men, they had completed two years compulsory National Service. Most, like me, tried to move up in the world; but for this group, it was as if their return to civilian life was marked by the mere exchanging of army uniforms for civilian ones that branded them as the aging delinquents that they were.
I wondered with a tightness in my throat if they still held the old grudge against me.
The second pole dancer chugged down a bottle of vodka and spewed it out through a flaming skewer. I turned back to the Sergeant, feeling the searing flame at my back illuminate his grinning maw. It may have been the shadows from the fire crawling across his face, but I could have sworn that he inched forward as he opened his palm, inviting me to reciprocate...
It was the same gesture he extended to me in Taiwan, except that at the time it was a cigarette he held in his palm. The overseas exercise had been cut and the two of us had come back early to camp to return the stores, and after that we sat at the smoking corner at the back of the empty barracks. It was early May and the wind chilled me as dusk came on; but the cold was not the reason why I picked up my first cigarette...
I felt a firm, warm grip enclose my hand; it was the Sergeant’s hand shaking mine, the stitched zigzag pattern on his poncho sleeve distracting me as I worked out the motions of moving my hand up and down to match his rhythm. I looked up, prepared to give any reason why I was here, but his countenance guarded against any expression of individuality.
A wreathe of flame ignited his irises and the corners of his mouth turned up again and resumed its fixture on his face. My hand departed from his moist, loose grip.
“Okay bro, I won’t disturb you. I’ll say hi to the rest for you.” He ambled through the doorway to his table outside and perched himself on a stool, saying something to the group. The hooligans turned around and looked at me and whooped and howled like hyenas as I strode the remaining distance to my table. He was alright, really, he wasn’t really like the rest of them; but I did not understand why he still kept up old foolish appearances.
“Friends?” Nikki asked.
“No.” I seated myself between Nikki and the view of the other table. “When we’re done with our drinks, let’s go somewhere else.”
“But we just ordered refills,” Barry mumbled across from me, eyes still transfixed on the pyrotechnics show.
“Nik, got a fag?”
She flipped back the lid of the pack and I extracted one by its butt, placing it between my lips, dangling. Nikki took one too and Barry tried to take one but I snatched the pack in time and put it at the far end of the table.
The Sergeant’s words came back to me: “Don’t tell anyone I taught you.”
“Fuck you Barry, don’t start,” I said.
“I just want to light it,” Barry said.
“Okay. Nothing else.” I let him light it for me.
“Mike, are you alright?” Nikki asked. Barry lighted her cig too.
“God! I need this,” I exhaled. “It’s for his own good. Barry, I’ll say it again: don’t start.”
“Fuck you, I started long ago, during ‘O’ Levels. But I stopped just before NS.”
“Why did you start?” I asked.
“Stress; peer pressure. Who knows?”
“Why did you stop?”
“Stamina to run. And I don’t need to smoke when I have alcohol.”
“I need alcohol too...but I should quit this,” Nikki said, waving her cigarette. “Maybe with your courage I will.”
I reckoned it was courage that asked the men at the other table to stop smoking in our bunk on my first night in 5 SIB. I had learnt in Basic Military Training that you had to establish who you were on your first day; you couldn’t be too playful or too uptight, too lazy or too hardworking, too this or too that. Moreover, if I was to serve out my two years in the same bunk, it could not be at the expense of my health. But was it really courage that propelled me to say, ‘Bro, we don’t smoke. Do you mind smoking outside,’ every time they lit up?
“Barry, don’t talk to me about courage. I don’t see the police having to stay in camp for two years.” Barry had served his NS in the police.
“I didn’t say it was courage.”
“Sorry, that was me,” Nikki confessed. She was two years older than us and unlike some other girls I knew, she didn't pretend to know what the army was like, no matter how many outfield stories their boyfriends regaled them with. Nikki was cool that way.
I heard shouts and applause from the other table; the fire-breathing pole dancers took a bow and retreated back into the bar past a waitress who brought us Barry’s Sex on the Beach and Nikki’s glass of red wine. I ordered a refill of double scotch on the rocks.
“So Mike,” Barry said, sipping his cocktail. “How did you start smoking?”
I lit up another cig and pulled on it hard.
“At my lowest point in NS, I was offered a cigarette.”
“I think you’ve told me this before,” Barry said, turning to his drink.
“Not to me!” Nikki said, leaning forward. “Go on, Mike.”
I took another drag and went on.
“Almost everyone in my company smoked, from our OC to the guys in my bunk. These were the kinds of people who didn’t finish school; wannabe gangsters and petty thieves. From the beginning, I told the guys in my bunk to smoke outside because I couldn’t take it.
“Sometimes we compromised and they smoked by the open windows. Other times they congregated outside the ops room, smoking and talking, and then they’d call me over and just stare at me, not saying anything. Only as I walked away would I hear their laughter.
“One day before we left for Taiwan on my first overseas exercise, someone wrote in the feedback book. It was a complaint about smoking in the bunks—written anonymously—but naturally, everyone assumed it was me. No one said it to my face, though I could smell it in the air.
“In Taiwan, word about the complaint spread in the camp. People would give me the stares, even new trainees I’d never met before. And I would hear my name—no, that stupid nickname—whispered in the bunks, called out in the forest. I heard it everywhere I went.
“For that one month, if I needed to change uniform sizes or get an off-pass, I was the last one to get it. If I needed help carrying the jerry cans, no one volunteered ‘til they were forced to. If I had an opinion on anything, they asked me to shut up: ‘Shut up, you educated bitch’. I remember sitting in the forest one day cleaning my rifle, thinking to myself, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore; I don’t want to do it. I’ve had enough.’
“At the end of the exercise, I secretly took up smoking. I hated myself for it, but it’s the reason I survived. I only stopped when I came back from Taiwan. But if I got stressed again, which was often, I would smoke by myself outside camp. Except when I’m with you guys.”
My refill had arrived and I took a hit of it, then lit up another cig.
“That shit will kill you,” Barry said. “I would know. It’s the easiest way out of a bad situation. Mike, take my advice: Get some exercise. You need it anyway.”
“My bad situation is over. It sucks to be condemned, you know, in a place you don’t want to be in, to live with people you don’t want to live with. Every action and gesture on your part becomes part of the repertoire; you do something and are expected to continue doing it, even if the intentions behind it are misconstrued. To live day-to-day only on first impressions and unless you’re good at talking to people and playing the system, you stick to the rules.”
“But it’s over,” Nikki said. “You’re in the real world now. Forget them. You can do whatever you want.”
“It’s not so easy; I understand what he’s talking about,” Barry said. He was hunched over his drink now, as if talking to the table. “It’s all about compromise between following and breaking the rules; the desire to rebel persists. But once you get out of that bad situation, you’re no longer smoking in uniform or within a yellow box; you’re smoking at a bar in civilian clothes. You can do it because they allow you to do it; it’s just a different uniform in a bigger box.” He looked up from the table. “But Mike...in the end, you have a choice to quit.”
“HEY MICHAELPOOH!” a rabble of voices cried out. I leaned past the profile of Nikki; the hooligans at the other table were holding their glasses up to me.
“CHEERS!” they cried out. “CHEERS, MICHAELPOOOOH!”
“Shit,” I muttered. Then, I decided that I didn’t care whether or not they saw me smoking.
“Fine. Cheers to 5 SIB!”
They laughed and we all drank up. I lifted up my glass again, this time to my table. Nikki, Barry and I clinked our glasses together.
“To the elixir of life!”
“And the sticks of death.”
I can’t remember who said that; I could hardly taste the whiskey in my drink anymore.
“Mike, now I see who you were talking about.” Nikki glanced at the other table. “I mean, the kind of people. They think we look down on them. So it’s like, you can’t make them feel inferior.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Just shoot the breeze with them, like you understand they have problems,” Barry said. “But don’t try to understand their problems.” He chuckled.
“I’m not saying all of them are that bad,” I explained. “Even most of them are alright, individually. You can talk to them one-on-one, sure, no problem. But when you put them together, that’s when the trouble begins.”
I turned around. It was the Sergeant. A cig was sticking out the corner of his mouth.
“Nice talking to you, bro. We’re leaving. See you round next time, bro.” He patted me on the shoulder.
“Hey, before that,” I said, and got my feet on the ground, motioning to him. He followed me as I took the few steps back to the doorway of the bar.
I heard the stools from his table scraping the floor. The usual grin was etched onto his face as he pulled on his cig and expelled two streams of smoke from his nostrils.
“Hey, it doesn’t really matter now,” I said. “But I just wanted to tell you...I didn’t complain about the smoking in the bunks; I didn’t write about it in the book. I’m not that kind of person.”
“I know,” he said. “I was the one. It was me; I wrote it.”
A sensation washed over my scalp like a first breath after struggling underwater.
“You? What the fuck. What do you mean?”
“You were like me when I first entered 5 SIB,” he said. The smile in his eyes seemed to sag around his cheeks, as though weighed-down by the words.
“I just thought I’d help you before I left.”
“Oh...no. No, you don’t...” I began.
Then I saw him again as a young man in short hair and uniform, the rank on his collar drawing attention to itself: he was branded a specialist, Section Leader of the 3rd Division, 5th Brigade, Bravo Coy, Platoon 1, Section 4, condemned to a sentence of two years commanding the men below him and answering to the officers above him; neither too lenient nor too by-the-book, neither too ignorant nor too knowledgeable, neither too respected nor too disrespected. He had an education and wanted to become an officer, but that little ambition was crushed when he was sent to the specialist’s training school. I was doubtful he smoked before entering National Service. I could have gone on and on about him, as though I suddenly knew who he was. There was too much more to say...and then there was nothing to say.
Something dropped between my fingers. It took a while to register that it was my cigarette.
“My friends are waiting,” the Sergeant sighed. “Gotta go, Michaelpooh.”
“Fuck you, my name is Michael POH!” I shouted at him. But I stumbled back against the doorway as if I’d eaten my own words. The smile on his face loosened to blankness as he cocked his head to the side, looking at me as though to say, ‘Hey, bro, are you okay? Are you alright, bro?’
But he didn’t say anything. He just shook his head, confused, and strolled back to his posse. Some of them turned back to look at me. Then they lit up their cigarettes and walked on into the night, laughing.
I felt hands lifting me up; it was Barry.
“Assholes!” Nikki shouted at them. She threw something at them but it missed and they didn’t even turn back to look at what it was.
“I’m fine. But thanks,” I said, and got back to the table by myself. Nikki and Barry retook their places and looked at me with scrunched up faces.
“What did he say to you?” Barry asked.
“Nothing. What did you guys talk about?” I asked.
“Nothing important,” Nikki said.
“Just how Nikki started smoking.”
“How did she start?”
“Oh, nothing dramatic. Not like you two,” she sighed. “Just something to do with early-twenties cynicism.”
“Mike, you sure you’re okay?”
“I’ll be okay. Just pass me a cig, will you?” Barry passed me one. “Thanks.”
I looked down and there was a lighter, attached to Nikki’s fingers
the show’s over but you’re still in character
her thumb flicking down til the flame shot up
that is the difference between us, Sergeant
my breath pulling hard on the butt
no rules in the end, only human fucking nature
til the flame caught the tip
that’s why I won’t quit smoking
inhaling it with the fresh evening air
because I need something to hold on to
then expelling out the smoke in a sigh onto the stained oak beneath my glass like a rifle discharging a round.
I could breathe again.