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Saturday, Oct. 01, 2005 - 1:50 a.m.

Night. A blanket of sleep covers the country, impenetrable as a frightening dream. But at a factory in Ang Mo Kio Industrial estate, he is awake, seated in a closed room that is windowless and lightless. He closes his eyes, opens them, and finds no difference between the two states. The camera flashgun is already set up; all that is left to do is to press the trigger button in his hand. But he waits in the dark and studies the blackness.

The factory produces flashguns. A conveyor belt carries them from the belly of a huge machine, and every night he randomly chooses a few to test in the small lightless room. Each flashgun is a compact box of light waiting to be released, to illuminate a birthday party, a model's practiced pout, a family holiday in Phuket, when the children are still young enough to play with sand and understand nothing. The photographs that emerge are stories, and the light from the flashguns are the rays that will construct them.

In the room, he sits in a chair facing a blank wall with the flashgun mounted behind him. He watches the wall to ascertain its reflected brightness when the flashgun is triggered, an approximate measure of how much light is discharged. This is the work that he performs every night, every night except for the weekends, when he has other things to do - as an interloper at a wedding or a funeral.

Before this work with the flashguns, he had a similar job in another factory up the road, one that produced clear plastic IV drip bags for use in hospitals. He would take ten out of every one thousand bags produced and inspect them for tears with a magnifying glass. Five out of the ten he would fill with water and hang on hooks, and then he would watch them for leaks. When there was a leak, a clear rivulet of water would slide down the smooth plastic skin, and then cling to the horizontal edge at the bottom of the bag. These spheres of water would catch the light in the room, such that each held an upside-down world in its transparency. As part of his job, he would sometimes watch the water for hours.

Once, all the five IV bags that he tested leaked. The water streamed down their sides, like tears.

He had stood there watching the water droplets fall onto the floor, each new shape on the grey concrete the inimitable mark of broken water. He thought about it. Perhaps humans came off an assembly line as well, one at a time, standing erect on a moving conveyor belt. There would be a figure at the end of the conveyor belt checking each one; it would whisper two things into the ear of each human.

Then the figure would wait for the human to cry, because the first thing that it had whispered would have been something sad, and the second thing would have been something true. The correct response (Crying) allows the human-being to proceed to the next stage for the testing of more complex responses, such as Anger or Aesthetics. Love is the least complex response in the human repertoire and would have been tested first. Crying is the movement of water from the body interior to the exterior, necessarily through the eyes. And it has always been this way - sadness and truth being the two things that make a human-being cry. That is how we are all built. But for reasons unknown, we are unable to remember the two original things whispered to us.

And what does he test with the flashguns? When he goes to weddings (Saturdays) and funerals (often Sundays), he notices that people take a lot of photographs at one event and not at the other. The groom and bride walk from table to table, toasting the guests, in the midst of the staccato eruption of light. But at a funeral parlour in Sin MIng Estate, a crying wife has her hand resting on the coffin. She has her eyes closed because the raw, naked fluorescent light that enters her eyes is a light to be forgotten.

When he presses the trigger, light will explode from the eye of the flashgun and hit the wall. If his eyes and his mind move quick enough (at the speed of light), he will be able to perceive the light reflecting off the wall, the flashing scythes of white, leaping from wall to wall, ceiling to floor. The light races around the room, getting dimmer with each cycle across the four wall. There is no escape for the light in the black room; all of it must be absorbed - by the black walls, the blackness of his skin, his hair, the finished darkness inside his eye. Perhaps even the intrinsic blackness of the air takes some of the light as well. The truth is that all the black rooms around the world contain enormous amounts of light. Each is like a flashgun, also a box of light.

There was one night when he walked past the bus depot at Sin Ming Estate, after a funeral of strangers. The bus depot was quiet and there was no one around, and so he walked in. The depot was a rectangular grey slab, the size of a soccer field, dropped onto Sin Ming Estate. Its perimeter was lined by bus bays and each had a bus neatly parked in it. He walked across the centre, an empty grey space scarred by the chaotic black curves of tyre marks. And he lay down. The tower lights at each corner of the depot shone down on him so brightly that he had to close his eyes. The skin on his arms felt the coolness of the concrete surface. He felt himself breathe, became aware of the rise and fall of his chest. He even saw the blood pulsing through his body, his arms, up his neck, through the veins that ran across his face. He thought that for a while he hovered, but he never departed. Light, he thought, is exploding from flashguns all over the world. His breathing slowed, and when the tower lights went out, he became aware that truth existed (some people call it God).

It is five in the morning when he leaves the factory and walks the calming, quiet path to the main road. The sky is still pitch black and the fine-spun rain is so thin, that he can neither see nor feel the it. It is only when he reaches the bus-stop, standing under its corduroy-metal shelter, that he realizes that he has, like a long time ago, emerged completely wet.


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