Thursday, Mar. 31, 2005 - 3:18 a.m.
There is a scramble of boots and the platoon goes from vertical to horizontal on the parade square in seconds. In push-up position, their palms burn on the smooth concrete, that shade-less, unforgiving surface which has been heated all morning by the Pulau Tekong sun. Palms are moved centimetres up or down, left or right, in search for a cool, non-existent spot. The Sergeant Major notices this and says, "Too hot is it? Let me tell you a story: when policeman wear shorts that time..." What the Sergeant Major doesn't know is that they are already acting out the story. It is told by him standing over a platoon of eighteen year olds, punctuated by the drops of sweat that slide off their straining faces, which fall but do not puncture the unchangeable narrative of the ground.
The little boy saw it on an American family drama on television, and so he asks his mother for a bedtime story as he is tucked into the small darkness of the bed. He can hear his father watching the muffled sound of the news through the closed door of the bedroom. She is puzzled at first by this unusual request and the foreign nature of the custom, but she quickly makes something up: once upon a time, there was a boy who did not study hard, failed his PSLE, and ended up working as a 'kopikia' at a coffeeshop for the rest of his life. He had to wash plates, clean tables, and he was also a gangster and a bad person. Initially, all the stories are like this - cautionary tales of academic failure, or intriguing futures of government scholarships, but as the mother gets more comfortable with this, the stories become the confessional of her life's mistakes. Once upon a time, there was a stupid girl who married for love. When the little boy grows up he will never tell his own children bedtime stories. This is because the bedtime stories he heard were never a prelude to the sweet dreams of sleep, but the premature discovery of tension and unhappiness within the family.
Once upon a time, there was an old man in Chinatown who told stories for a living. He had a small crowd of children and adults gather around him every night at the corner of a dirty street, and he would tell them stories about Chinese patriots like Yue Fei or the fables of the Monkey god. Sometimes, he made up his own stories, but his audience would never get the full story in one night; he would end on a cliffhanger and pass the little bamboo cup around, into which his audience would drop small coins. He was a masterful story-teller and would rise up suddenly from his stool at the dramatic parts, to continue the story standing under the steady light of the kerosene lamp. When he died, his photograph appeared in a newspaper obituary. His expression was stolid, as if saying, I have used up all the small coins you gave me, and have given out all the stories that I have ever known.